Is this Murray's moment?
Britain's No 1 is in the form of his life, while Federer is hoping to surpass Sampras's Slam tally. Now each has a golden chance.
Saturday 20 June 2009
You cannot escape history at Wimbledon. Never mind the All England Club's museum and its exhibits from championships dating back to 1877.
Walk around every corner of the grounds and there are reminders of a glorious sporting heritage: a statue of Fred Perry, the greatest player Britain has ever produced; honours boards listing the names of past winners; the former Court Two, the "graveyard of champions" where the mighty have so often fallen; the Centre Court, one of the world's great sporting cathedrals, where players enter the arena under a doorway inscribed with Kipling's maxim about the "twin impostors" of triumph and disaster.
Every year 256 men and women set out on the path they hope might lead to their own place in history, but for two players something truly special will beckon when the Championships open on Monday. For Roger Federer, one of Wimbledon's best loved champions, there is the prospect of claiming a 15th Grand Slam title, eclipsing Pete Sampras' all-time record. For Andy Murray, the best British player for three-quarters of a century, there is the chance to become the first male winner from these shores since Perry won his third successive All England Club crown in 1936.
The chances of both men were enhanced last night when Rafael Nadal, the world No 1, announced his withdrawal, having failed to recover from the tendonitis in his knees that has been troubling him for several months and forced him to withdraw from last week's Aegon Championships at Queen's Club.
While the absence of the champion can only detract from the tournament, it must significantly increase the chances of success for both Federer and Murray (right). The 23-year-old Spaniard already has six Grand Slam titles in his locker and, fully fit, would have been right up there alongside his two biggest rivals as a favourite to win.
The first signs that all was not well with Nadal came when the king of clay was trounced at the recent French Open - where he had not been beaten in 31 matches - by Robin Soderling, a journeyman Swede. That defeat opened the way for Federer finally to equal Sampras' record, having been denied four months earlier in Melbourne, when he lost his third Grand Slam final to Nadal in less than a year.
As ever, Federer's timing was exquisite, leaving the world No 2 with the chance both to create history on the court he describes as the most special place in the world and to mark the forthcoming birth of his first child in the way that only he knows best.
Through all his troubles of the last 18 months, beginning with glandular fever at the start of the year, Federer has maintained a record of consistency unparalleled in the history of tennis. The Swiss has reached 20 Grand Slam semi-finals in succession and played in 15 of the last 16 finals, winning 11 of them and losing to Nadal in the other five.
It is hard to argue with such a record, yet the suspicion remains that Federer is not the force he was. In Paris he looked vulnerable against lesser opposition and he did not have to beat any of his three biggest rivals. While Federer always seems to find a way past most opponents, Nadal and Murray in particular seem to have got into his head.
If Nadal had well and truly got the upper hand on Federer – a fact that was confirmed with his victory on the hallowed turf of Wimbledon last year – then the Swiss can at least point out that Murray has never beaten him in a Grand Slam tournament. They have met only once, the world No 2 winning last year's US Open final after cruel scheduling had left Murray with 24 hours less than his opponent to prepare for the biggest match of his life after beating Nadal for the first time in the semi-finals.
Since then, however, it has been one-way traffic. Murray has beaten Federer four times in a row and has taken every opportunity to put down a psychological marker against the former Wimbledon champion.
John McEnroe is among those who have observed that the time is right for Murray to win his first Grand Slam title. Most recent Grand Slam champions, including Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic, have won their first title by the time they reach Murray's age, though the 22-year-old Scot has mapped out his career with the precision of a cartographer.
Murray has always been a supremely talented player, a magician who can bamboozle opponents with the sheer ingenuity of his game, but he has also known that he has to back that up with pure physical strength. The Scot was still growing late into his teenage years and, sensibly, waited until his body was ready to withstand punishing training sessions on the running track and in the gym.
The first major sign of his new-found strength came with his "Popeye" salute at Wimbledon last summer, when he flexed his biceps in celebration of his back-from-the dead victory over Richard Gasquet. Murray now travels to all the major tournaments with at least two members of his specialist fitness team. With strength and stamina added to his natural speed around the court, he now has the physical attributes to match his outstanding natural talent. If hard courts remain his favourite surface, his triumph at Queen's last week showed that he can play on grass too.
Yesterday's draw only added to the belief that this could be Murray's hour. The world No 3 could meet Federer in what would be the dream final to end all dream finals. Nadal was his scheduled semi-final opponent, but that man will now be the Argentine, Juan Martin del Potro. Otherwise Andy Roddick appears to be the most significant threat to Murray's progress towards the final.
Federer's half of the draw looks much more perilous. It includes Djokovic (world No 4), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (last year's beaten Australian Open finalist), Fernando Verdasco (who beat Murray in the Australian Open in January), as well as dangerous grass-court players such as Feliciano Lopez and Ivo Karlovic.
Murray, nevertheless, has still to prove that he can support the weight of history on his shoulders. He was the bookmakers' favourite to win this year's Australian Open but fell in the fourth round. He has also never gone beyond the quarter-finals at Wimbledon.
Does Murray himself believe he can end Britain's long wait for a Wimbledon champion? "I go in with the mentality that I'm going to win it," he said. "I'll have to play my best tennis ever to do it. It's difficult to do. That's why no one in Britain has done it for such a long time. I think a lot of people don't understand how tough it is, especially right now with the guys that are in front of me in the rankings and even the ones that are just behind. There are some great players out there."
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