The British public has taken its time warming to Andy Murray but last night the Scot set Centre Court alight with one of the most extraordinary comebacks in Wimbledon history. Nearly four hours of thrilling tennis and remarkable drama ended with Murray completing a 5-7, 3-6, 7-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory over Richard Gasquet to earn a place in the quarter-finals for the first time.
After hitting the match-winning serve with the clock showing 9.30pm and the stadium in near darkness, Murray rolled up a sleeve to show the crowd his bulging biceps. The British No 1, who now plays Rafael Nadal, believes his new fitness regime has put him in shape to win his first Grand Slam tournament, but this stunning performance was as much about heart as about muscle.
For the best part of three sets Murray was outplayed and outgunned by an opponent at the peak of his game, but the 21-year-old never knows when he is beaten. Gasquet, who had never before lost from two sets up, served for the match at 5-4 in the third set, but once Murray had broken for the first time the pendulum inexorably swung his way.
If there is a doubt about the wonderfully gifted Gasquet it is his ability to handle pressure and his increasingly desperate complaints about the fading light were evidence of his inner turmoil. It was certainly gloomy by the end, but the conditions were the same for both players and other matches have finished just as late at this year's championships.
In becoming only the fourth British man in the Open era to reach a Wimbledon quarter-final, following Roger Taylor, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, Murray will have gone a long way towards winning the hearts of a sceptical public. If the clean-shaven features, shorter hair and ditched baseball cap have helped to win over Middle England, the brilliance of his tennis should have changed the minds of those who have doubted whether he can succeed at the highest level.
Murray said it was the finest match of his career, eclipsing his dramatic five-set defeat to Nadal in Australia last year. "The crowd were awesome," he said "Tonight was the best support I've ever had."
Having reached his first Grand Slam quarter-final, Murray will have no fears tomorrow against Nadal, who has lost to Roger Federer in the last two finals here. "I have to look at the guys who have given him trouble and the way that [Jo-Wilfried] Tsonga played against him in Australia this year," Murray said. "It will be really important to serve well, be aggressive and not give him a chance to start dictating the rallies."
Gasquet is a player of typical French elegance, even if his back-to-front baseball cap is more Central Park than Bois de Boulogne. His one-handed backhand is a beautiful shot and he used it to power a flow of winners down the line as he battered Murray with a dazzling display of strokeplay to take an early lead. Initially at least the Frenchman did not look like a player who has supposedly been suffering a crisis of confidence. Until he arrived here the world No 10 had not won three matches in a row since January.
The way Murray can vary the pace of his shots has always been one of his strengths, but here it was the Scot who found himself struggling to cope with his opponent's sudden accelerations. Striking the ball with formidable racket head speed, Gasquet regularly had Murray hurrying his shots or flailing at thin air.
A high-quality first set ended with Murray desperately trying to hold on at 5-6. From 15-40 down he saved two set points, firstly with an ace and then with a backhand down the line after flying across the court to chase down a drop shot.
Even better was to follow on Gasquet's third set point. Again Murray had to race across court to thump a backhand. Gasquet dived for the volley, only to put the ball in the net. A bold serve-and-volley saved set point No 4, but on the fifth Murray put a volley out.
The Scot's disappointment at losing the first set appeared to carry over into the second as he dropped his serve with a double fault and three poor drop shots. He had been a model of good behaviour, but when his frustration boiled over at the end of the set he was given an official warning for an audible obscenity.
The end seemed at hand when Gasquet, putting Murray under pressure with his crushing returns of serve, broke to lead 5-4 in the third set. Murray, however, has a wonderful fighting spirit and after two and a quarter hours he broke serve for the first time. The Scot took the tie-break 7-3, clinching the set with a remarkable backhand played from several feet outside the tramline before standing on a wall by the photographers' pit to milk the crowd's acclaim.
"To finish the set like that really got the crowd going," Murray said. "It shifted the momentum hugely and I think his head went down a little bit for a few games."
Having watched parts of the match in near-silence, the crowd now roared. As mistakes started to litter Gasquet's game Murray broke twice to take the fourth set in just 25 minutes and went in front for the first time when he converted his fifth break point in the opening game of the decider.
The only previous occasion when Murray has come from two sets down to win a five-set match was against Israel's Andy Ram in the Davis Cup two summers ago, but nothing was going to stop him now. Gasquet saved a match point when serving at 3-5, but Murray served out to secure victory.
The Scot believes the crowd can roar him on to greater glory. "I think it's really important to try and use the crowd to give you extra energy and get on top of your opponent a bit," he said. "It must be intimidating playing against that."
From two sets down...
Before last night Andy Murray had lost the first two sets twice before in five-set matches since turning pro.
*The first occasion was at the 2005 US Open when the Briton fell behind 2-6, 6-7 to Arnaud Clement of France in the second round. Murray hit back to win the following two sets 6-2, 7-6 only to fall apart in the deciding set, losing 0-6.
*The second time, the world No 11 was in a 2-6, 4-6 hole against Israel's Andy Ram. But backed by a typically partisan Davis Cup crowd, Murray stormed back to triumph 7-5, 6-2, 6-3.
Bouncing back: Great Wimbledon revivals down the years
By Nick Harris
*2007: Men's singles, fourth round
Rafael Nadal, seeking to reach a second successive Wimbledon final, looked anything but a Grand Slam winner in the first two sets but fought back to beat Mikhail Youznhy in five sets, 4-6, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2.
*2007: Men's singles, first round
The Great British hope Tim Henman looked all the way out at 2-1 down in sets to Carlos Moya in his first-round match of his final Wimbledon but he rallied to win 6-3, 1-6, 5-7, 6-2, 13-11.
*2005: Women's singles, final
Venus Williams came from match point down in the second set to beat Lindsay Davenport in three sets, 4-6, 7-6, 9-7, in the longest women's final ever, lasting a mammoth two hours, 46 minutes.
*1987: Men's singles, fourth round
Jimmy Connors, then 34, came back seemingly from the dead to beat Mikael Pernfors after the Swede had taken a 6-1, 6-1, 4-1 lead. Connors won 18 of the last 25 games for a memorable win on Centre Court.
*1981: Men's singles, semi-final
Bjorn Borg came back from two sets down against Jimmy Connors to win a five-set thriller, 0-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-0, 6-4, on route to another famous match with John McEnroe, which he won.