For three consecutive years, Andy Murray has stepped out onto Centre Court on this very day in his bid to reach a maiden Wimbledon final, and for three consecutive years he has left the court a loser, his hopes of eternal sporting glory crushed at the penultimate hurdle.
Because Britain is craving a Wimbledon finalist. The last time the home nation had a vested interest in the tournament’s final day was back in 1938 when Bunny Austin lost to America’s Don Budge – he was awarded a £10 gift voucher, redeemable in high street jewellers, for his efforts.
As far as winners go, Britain has not got its hands on the All England Club trophy since Fred Perry won his third and final title back in 1936. British women, much maligned in recent years, fare significantly better thanks to Virginia Wade’s winning performance in front of the Queen back in 1977.
To give you a good idea of the weight of history Murray is up against, the last man to be beaten by a Briton in a Wimbledon semi-final was killed in the Battle of Stalingrad way back in 1942!
And one man who can surely sympathise with Murray’s plight is Mr Tim Henman, four-time semi-finalist himself. The then British number one had a nation wincing, grimacing, yelling at their screens and eventually sighing with familiar resignation as he repeatedly battled to reach the final between 1998-2002 – but it was not to be.
However, in Andy Murray, Britain has found its best hope in years of finals day glory. With Tim you never really had the faith he could do it; he always seemed stretched to his limit – there was never anything left in the tank. With Andy, his toughest moments are often his most brilliant, as demonstrated in his quarter-final victory over David Ferrer. Four Wimbledon semi-final appearances and three Grand Slam finals (two in Australia and one in the US) should win him the respect he often finds lacking. But as a nation we are always hungry for more, and more we would probably have if he wasn’t facing the near-invincible trio of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer.
It is widely agreed that Andy Murray has the weapons to land a Slam, but no one can berate him for repeatedly losing to three of the greatest players to ever grace a tennis court. What we can berate him for is losing to a player ranked two spots below him.
Today’s contest with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will be the biggest match of Murray’s career. Why? Because it’s the greatest chance he is likely to ever have of landing the SW19 crown. With Nadal’s shock second round exit, Murray became the highest-ranked player in his half of the draw – for the first time in his career he is expected to reach a Grand Slam final.
But hard-hitting Tsonga is no walkover – last year he came back from two sets down to knock out six-time champion Roger Federer in the quarter-finals. A killer serve and a devastating topspin forehand, coupled with the ability to serve and volley, make the fifth-seeded Frenchman the ideal grass-court player.
He will try and dominate Murray with his power game, and the Brit will have to be on top of his returning to avoid being served off the court. Tsonga is a dangerous player, full of risk and creativity, so Murray will have to find an early rhythm, land his groundstrokes and play aggressively to neutralise his opponent’s attack.
Andy is all too aware of the magnitude of today’s task: “Jo’s a tough opponent. He’s served very well so far – he’s one of the best grass-court players in the world. I’d be disappointed if I lost before the final in any tournament, but I don’t just expect to get there. It’s a very difficult thing to do. You need to make sure you perform properly.”
Tsonga also acknowledged, “It’s going to be a big fight for sure and I have to get ready. I will not be a player who most support, but I will play my game, try to be good and see what happens.”
Mentally, Murray has never looked better – unfazed by numerous rain delays, and steeled by new coach Ivan Lendl who is no stranger to a Grand Slam final, having won eight himself. It would be a brave man to predict a straight-sets Murray victory (when has a Brit ever made it easy?) but, on top of his game, it is the home player who has the talent to reach his maiden Wimbledon final.