Everyone for tennis! UK grinds to halt as Murray seeks glory
20 million to tune in as Britain's No 1 takes on Roger Federer in Wimbledon final
He may not be the hero Wimbledon has always had in mind, but if Andy Murray has often been angry rather than stiff-upper-lip stoic, if his manner is more of the street than the leafy middle-class enclave, no one could have brought the nation more brilliantly to the fever that grips it today.
It will break at 2pm when he walks on to the Centre Court in the company of the greatest, most feted tennis player the world has known.
With the London Olympics less than three weeks away, Murray against Roger Federer has not only brought the golden summer of British sport in ahead of schedule but brought one of its most persistent dreams to the nation's forefront.
It is 74 years since Bunny Austin, the last male British player to take the walk that Murray will make today, stepped out to compete in a Wimbledon final; and 76 since one extremely tough son of a Socialist MP, Fred Perry, did it successfully. The result is that Wimbledon hosts the most compelling sports collision on British soil since England won its only World Cup in 1966.
Then, the streets of England if not all of Britain were ghostly as the nation glued itself to small black-and-white television screens to see Sir Geoffrey Hurst deliver the decisive goals against West Germany.
When the people came pouring out to the streets that had been so empty, so eerily quiet, it was ranked by many as the most fervent national celebration since the night of Victory in Europe 21 years earlier. One of the heroes of the World Cup, Sir Bobby Charlton, says now: "It is a wonderful thing to feel your whole nation is behind you, and when you think how much greater the pressures are today in all walks of life, you have admire all the more Andy Murray's achievement.
"He has lived with the pressure of making the Wimbledon final for so long – and now he has done it, he deserves everyone's respect and support."
Such is the power of sport to move the spirit of a nation – and the measure of the achievement of the 25-year-old Scot whose youth was clouded by the tragedy of the Dunblane school massacre.
There were other hazards on his way to a world ranking of number four and a fourth Grand Slam final appearance – and a third meeting at this level with Federer, who, shortly before his 31st birthday, seeks, astonishingly, his seventh Wimbledon singles title and his 17th Grand Slam victory.
Murray was born with the freak condition of bipartite patella, which meant that his knee did not fuse in the normal way. At one point this seemed to threaten his career when he was forced out of tennis for six months. He still feels the pain in the later stages of long matches.
The youngster also saw the failure of the marriage of his parents, Willie and Judy – the latter a highly qualified tennis coach who has been a huge influence on her son's career.
Yet, if many hardened critics believed that Murray's temperament was too volatile and self-destructive for him to break into the rarefied circle of the Swiss Federer, the world's current number one, Serbia's Novak Djokovic and Spain's Rafael Nadal, he has waged an impressive battle against the worst of his demons.
On Friday the process moved closer to ultimate success in the fine, mostly highly disciplined, semi-final defeat of his dangerous French opponent, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Until this year, when Murray appointed the taciturn multiple-Grand Slam champion Ivan Lendl, the disappointment of surrendering the third set to Tsonga would almost certainly have provoked outpourings of emotion, mostly directed at his entourage and himself.
On Friday, though, there was just one such eruption. Lendl sat in the advisers' box with an impenetrable expression – and Murray again found the edge that had helped him to a masterful exhibition in the first two sets.
This was, in many ways, Murray coming of age – a little late, perhaps, when you remember that he seemed to have made the big breakthrough in the US Open in 2008, when he beat the reigning Wimbledon champion Nadal in the semi-final before going down to Federer in the final – a defeat that was repeated in the final of the Australian Open two years later.
He lost his third Grand Slam final to Djokovic in Australia a year later. When the same player ejected him from that tournament in the semi-finals this year, there were growing fears that Murray had reached his limit. His self-control had rarely been so stretched. It was as though he had taken a harsh look into the reality of being born into an age of superior tennis talent and found the challenge simply too great.
However, his response to the demands imposed by the stern Lendl has seen a new pattern of resolve and discipline – one that reached an impressive level with the defeat of Tsonga and his own more erratic tendencies.
He was candid about the level of his emotion at the moment of reaching his first Wimbledon final. "Yes, I have to be honest," he said. "It is always something at the back of your mind, even when you are just walking around. There was only one way of getting it off my back and it has happened now. I feel that I just have to play my best game and believe in my ability."
Over the years it has been a belief stretched to breaking point by the recurring evidence that he was pitted against the implacable brilliance of arguably the greatest tennis generation of all time.
As Federer proved in his frequently exquisite demolition of the reigning champion, Djokovic, in the other semi-final, he has resisted the years sufficiently well still to represent the game at a historically high level.
This is Andy Murray's most daunting challenge, but he goes to it with a rare honour among British sportsmen. Not only has he won over a sceptical nation, but he has also brought the country to an extraordinary level of excitement. It is the consequence of a brave battle against the destructive enemy that so often lurked within his own head and competitive heart.
If you have an event or business that is hoping to attract a bit of a crowd this afternoon, we have some bad news. You won't get one. And that's because we've all gone totally and merrily MURRAY MAD!
A television audience so big you wouldn't get more if you put Tony Blair on trial will tune in at homes, pubs and clubs from Land's End to Lerwick. And, of the places in between, none will host more fervour than SW19 and Murray's home town. Dunblane is awash with saltires and Union flags. Posters adorn many shop windows inciting "Go, Andy Go" or "C'mon Andy, be great for Great Britain". Youngsters walk around with Murray masks, or T-shirts emblazoned "Game, Set, Murray". For the 9,000 or so residents here, a Wimbledon victory for their native son matters more than it might to other communities where a star is born. The cathedral town is still haunted by the events of 13 March 1996 when Thomas Hamilton shot dead 16 children and their teacher in Dunblane Primary School.
Murray was a contemporary of those who died, and his family still lives and works locally. His achievements have helped to give the town's name a more positive resonance. Tom McLean, landlord of the Dunblane Hotel, has been drinking hot tea with honey ever since the semi-final to get his voice back in shape for today. "I've had to go out and get extra champagne," he says. "The last lot was in danger of going off we have been waiting so long."
A capacity crowd is expected at the tiny bar which has become an unofficial home to Murray fans. Strawberries and cream have been stockpiled, while at the town sports centre a giant screen has been erected for members to get behind their hero.
If Murray beats Federer today, he will be the first Scot to win here since Edinburgh-born Harold Mahony beat Wilfred Baddeley 116 years ago. Not that anyone in Dunblane is making any parochial claims. Tom McLean says: "Andy Murray is British, and tennis is a sport in which the whole of the UK gets together to support the British player."
They'll drink to that in SW19, where people from all over the UK have brought their tents and camped on the site for a chance to see sporting history. Many of those you see on Murray Mount have slept at Camp Andy in car park 10. Stewards were waking them at 6am today so that they could head to the All England Club to be first in the queue for ground passes, or, if lucky, returns or resale tickets for Centre Court. Among fans are Sue Callaghan, 59, Surrey, a carer from Walton-on-the-Hill, who's been coming for 39 years, Margaret Brodie, a 56-year-old biomedical scientist from Durham, a mere 15-year veteran, and Lawrence Winter, 26, a physics teacher from Wootton Bassett, Wiltshire, who has missed his mum's birthday and stood up a date to be here.
All were impatient for the great day to arrive. Christine Clarke, 60, retired from Billingshurst, Surrey, said: "I want a five-set nail-bitter." And, by way of warning to the lucky Centre Court ticket-holders, she added: "We don't want 'toffs' there. We want people screaming in there. They should all be raising the roof."
Sean Murphy and Paul Cahalan
Where will you watch?
"I'll be on dreadful tenterhooks. I'll be delighted if he wins: wouldn't it be something? People called to tell me he had got through the semi-finals, and there will be huge celebrations if he wins. It will be really gut-wrenching if he doesn't win, so I'll be hoping against hope."
Annie Lennox; Singer-songwriter
"I am heading back from a book festival so am going to rely on not hearing anything about the game until I get home. This will involve airport mode on my phone and special noise-cancelling headphones so no sound of cheering or crying leaks through."
Jeremy Vine; Broadcaster
"I'll be watching at home. I know people go on about him being grumpy, but he's a very passionate player. I just hope there's not too much stuff about him being British if he wins and Scottish if he loses. And I don't think it matters a damn that he once said England should lose at football."
Alastair Campbell; Former spin-doctor
"I was born and brought up really close to the All England Club so it's great to see a Brit in the final at last. I was lucky enough to be there last Monday for Federer's match and that silky Rolls-Royce style was really impressive. So Andy's up against it, but he responds well in these situations."
Alan Pardew; Newcastle United manager
"I would love to go to the pub and watch people watching tennis and observe all that excitement and passion. I think it is brilliant."
Graham Coxon; Blur guitarist
"I am a real Wimbledon junkie and I will be going to a friend's Wimbledon party if I can make it through the floods here in Devon. I have picked loads of strawberries and will be taking strawberry jam as my contribution to the party."
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall; Chef
"I will be watching the final. Murray looked so strong but I don't put any expectations on him. Under that pressure any normal person would collapse in a heap of hideousness. If he does win I will be pleased, but I won't be having a party. I'm not related to him."
Jo Brand; Comedian
"I want Federer to win and my wife wants Andy Murray, so I think we will be watching it in separate parts of the house. I think Federer is such a great champion and the greatest tennis player there has been and a great advert for tennis. He is an exceptional champion."
Max Clifford; Publicist
"I booked Hampton Court Flower Show well before I knew that Andy Murray would do so brilliantly. Now I absolutely have to see the match to see him complete the fairy tale. So I was wondering if I could watch it in a civilised pub near to Hampton Court."
Esther Rantzen; TV presenter
"I'm supposed to be at the Oval for a cricket match but I'm hoping I can watch bits of it somewhere. I can see that hunger coming out in Murray now. A controlled aggression. I think he's going to do it."
Tessa Sanderson; Athlete
"I think on these occasions the England-Scotland thing goes out of the window so I hope everyone will get behind him. What I like about him is that when things aren't going so well, he hangs on in there. You have to do that in any sport and he does that very well."
Graham Taylor; Former England manager
"How extremely exciting! I'll be working but I will come down and watch it at the end. He played so well yesterday. It's interesting that it's so in fashion now to 'well up' and he welled up."
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