Andy Murray thought he could carry a sceptical nation to its most thrilling moment in 71 years of yearning but, no, there will be no male British tennis player in Sunday's Wimbledon final. It seemed, on the hot and draining night, more a curse than a fate.
Murray was not so much beaten as undressed – not as a 22-year-old Scottish superhero about to complete a successful invasion of London SW19 after some years of threatening to do so, but someone who, on the most important day of his sporting life, found himself outplayed, outfought, and, ultimately, outclassed.
The personal career tragedy for Murray is that he may have to spend the rest of his life reflecting that, of all the things that went wrong at the penultimate stage of his attempt to follow a genteel Englishman named Henry "Bunny" Austin to the last day of the great tournament, the most significant was utterly, shatteringly beyond his control.
It was that Andy Roddick, a 26-year-old from Texas who many tennis judges believed had left the best of himself behind some considerable time ago, chose this day to play one of the games of his life.
He made an early announcement of bruising force. It was a service timed at a stunning 140mph an hour and it was on that tide of speed and power, and some magnificent in-fighting at the net, that Roddick rode to his 6-4, 4-6, 7-6, 7-6 victory in 3hrs 7mins.
It was only one of the Texan's best days, we have to say, because six years ago Roddick won the US Open and announced himself as one of the world's best players.
But that was a time that came and passed, and the American entered yesterday's semi-final ranked number six in the world and very much the second favourite to the brilliant young man from Dunblane, who is ranked number three, and considered by many a legitimate challenger to the injured reigning Wimbledon champion Rafael Nadal and Roddick's opponent of Sunday, five-time champion Roger Federer.
However, the bitter truth is that all the promise of Murray's campaign was compressed into a brilliant second set performance, a mighty response to Roddick's rush into the lead in the first set.
Murray immediately broke the rocket serve at the start of the second set, to love. That was counter-punching of the highest order. Murray's mother and mentor Judy rose from her seat as though she had just been liberated from a nightmare – and now there was an overwhelming sense that the bad moments had passed, and Murray was about to vindicate all those who had argued that he was about to undergo one last rite of passage as an emerging master sportsman.
As former champions Rod Laver – arguably the greatest of them all – Bjorn Borg and Ilie Nastase watched from the royal box, Murray produced the most vital evidence that a putative champion can provide about himself.
He had found his nerve and his shots and his poise. It seemed that Roddick had burst onto the Centre Court like a shooting star – and then burned out.
For Murray's supporters, it was the most encouraging of thoughts, and it was maintained by his strong hold on the rest of the set. The young Scotman's trademark specialities, a burning backhand a wonderful running forehand, were now much more evident. Even though Roddick continued to punch in his shots with speed and bite and confidence, Murray was able to produce some of his full range of shot-making. It was hard to believe that Murray was not indeed moving so much closer to closing the great gap in British tennis and moving back past the finalist Henry Austin and claim the ultimate high ground of 1936 winner Fred Perry, the abrasive son of a Labour MP.
Critically, the abrasive qualities of Andy Murray that have been so much part of his competitive psyche were draining before our eyes. The disappointment in the crowd was plain, but it also clear that the fans who had worshipped at the altar of Tim Henman were in no mood to offer such unstinting support for his successor as the man carrying British hopes.
An embarrassing truth was that cries for the Texan at times drowned out those for Murray. Here, surely, was confirmation that the Scotsman still has much to work to do if he is to convince the Centre Court crowd that he is worthy of their adoption. That was a harsh verdict, but it was inescapable too.
The trouble was that, if the Centre Court didn't believe in Murray, not truly, not passionately, there were times when it was also true of the player.
In an opening set which ended not so much in Murray's bitter disappointment as almost in a sense of his ambush, the man who had marched so strongly through this Wimbledon, game by game, set by set, gathering his confidence and touch, was suddenly in crisis.
There were times when he seemed to lack even the confidence to clear the net and by then it was also disturbingly apparent that Roddick was aflame.
Later he said: "Andy Murray has a great game and he will do great things in the future but today was my time, and I was determined to take my chance."
For Murray there was maybe only one possible resolve. It was to fight back from this day of broken spirits and a broken game. Former champion Boris Becker, who won the Wimbledon crown at the age of 17, said, "The test of a player is how he reacts to the biggest defeat of his life, and this is what the challenge is for Andy Murray now. I'm sure this will make him a better play in the long run."
Last night Murray declared: "I thought I played well; the statistics look good, but Andy put in a great performance and there is no argument with that. I just wish I could have done better."
His stricken look might have been lifted by something else Becker said when he lost his Wimbledon title at the age of 18. "You know," he said, "no one died out there." It will take Andy Murray perhaps a little time to be convinced.Reuse content