Five down, two to go. For the fourth year in succession Andy Murray is just two victories away from becoming Britain's first men's Wimbledon singles champion since Fred Perry in 1936. Murray's 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 7-6 victory last night over Spain's David Ferrer, after a gruelling contest that lasted eight minutes short of four hours, took him into a semi-final meeting tomorrow with France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who has won just one of their six meetings.
Ferrer, who beat Murray in the quarter-finals of the French Open four weeks ago and had won five of their previous 10 meetings, is the most resilient of opponents, but even the world No 5 was eventually worn down by the 25-year-old Scot's excellence. It took time for Murray to come out of his shell, but when he did so he had too much firepower for the 30-year-old Spaniard, hitting 61 winners to Ferrer's 44.
In reaching the semi-finals Murray extended his record of maintaining or improving his record at Wimbledon with every visit. Tomorrow, moreover, will probably be his best chance yet of reaching the final, following his defeats by Andy Roddick in 2009 and Rafael Nadal in 2010 and 2011. Murray, who would be the first British man to reach the final since Bunny Austin in 1938, has got the better of Tsonga in their last four matches and has beaten the world No 6 in both their meetings on grass.
Asked how he would cope with the inevitable weight of expectations on his shoulders, Murray said he would try to avoid newspapers and television reports. "If you shield yourself from it all and just get into your own little bubble, only listen to the people that are around you, then it's something you can deal with," he said. "Subconsciously I'm probably extremely stressed out right now, but I try not to feel it."
Having beaten the 6ft 10in Ivo Karlovic and the 6ft 6in Marin Cilic in earlier rounds, Murray faced a very different challenge in the shape of the 5ft 9in Ferrer. The Spaniard, who is as quick as Murray around the court, lacks the big shots of the four players above him in the world rankings but is an indefatigable runner who keeps making his opponents play the extra shot.
Andre Agassi, who was sitting in the front row of the Royal Box along with his wife, Steffi Graf, and Rod Laver, might have wondered if he was watching "the dragon", which was what he used to call the unforgiving ball machine built by his father that spat 2,500 balls at him every day when he was growing up in Las Vegas.
The first two sets followed similar patterns, albeit with different outcomes. Ferrer got his nose in front in both but was broken when serving for the set each time. The only significant difference was that Ferrer won the first tie-break 7-5 while Murray took the second 8-6.
Both men took time to settle and Murray played a sloppy game when Ferrer made the first break to lead 3-1. From 30-15 up the Scot failed to put away what should have been a routine kill, struck a backhand wide and then hit a loose forehand into the net.
The lapse, nevertheless, appeared to concentrate his mind and he broke back when Ferrer served at 5-3. From deuce Murray played two superb points, crashing a huge backhand cross-court winner and then hitting a splendid passing shot from the same flank. Murray led 2-0 in the tie-break but Ferrer won five of the next six points and took the set when the Scot put a forehand in the net.
Centre Court was packed, but was about as noisy as a half-empty library for most of the second set. There were moments when a subdued Murray looked as disappointed as his supporters. The Scot had to save three break points at 3-3 and was broken two games later. If Ferrer had held serve to take a two-sets lead it would have been a long road back but the Spaniard played his worst game of the match, making four successive forehand errors to hand Murray the break back.
Ferrer led 5-2 in the tie-break and had one set point, which Murray saved with a forehand winner behind a big serve. Two points later the Scot took the set when a thrilling 20-stroke rally ended with Ferrer putting a backhand into the net.
It proved to be the turning point. Murray held firm when Ferrer had two break points for a 3-1 lead in the third set and soon it was the Spaniard – at last – who started to wilt. Murray, sensing his moment had come, hit two wonderful returns to make the break for 5-4 and then served out for the set.
Ferrer, nevertheless, is not the sort to lie down without a fight. The Spaniard, having forced Murray to save two break points at 3-4, had to emulate him in the following game, when the Scot was within five points of victory.
At 5-5, as the clock ticked towards 7pm, rain forced the players off court for a break which lasted nearly half an hour. Both took a quick shower and Murray said there was tension in the room as the two men, who are good friends off the court, were given treatment by physiotherapists on adjoining couches.
When they returned the set went into another tie-break, in which there were again shifts of momentum. Murray had the early advantage, Ferrer then went 3-2 up and finally the Scot took command from 5-4, following up a forehand winner with a match-winning ace, his 18th of the contest.
Seed watch: The fate of the leading players
1. N Djokovic (Serb) in semi-final
2. R Nadal (Sp) lost in 2R
3. R Federer (Swit) in semi-final
4. A Murray (GB) in semi-final
5. J-W Tsonga (Fr) in semi-final
6. T Berdych (Cz Rep) lost in 1R
7. D Ferrer (Sp) lost in QF
1. M Sharapova (Rus) lost in 4R
2. V Azarenka (Bela) in semi-final
3. A Radwanska (Pol) in semi-final
4. P Kvitova (Cz Rep) lost in QF
5. S Stosur (Aus) lost in 2R
6. S Williams (US) in semi-final
7. C Wozniacki (Den) lost in 1R
Facts in figures
10 Grand Slam semi-finals Murray has now reached
44-2 Djokovic's win/loss record over his last seven Grand Slams
50 Winners hit by Djokovic against Mayer
17 Aces hit by Tsonga yesterday