Sports Writer of the Year at Wimbledon
James Lawton: Harder challenges lie ahead – but the British No 1 looks ready this time
Tuesday 28 June 2011
If Andy Murray exceeds all expectations and reaches Sunday's final he will able to claim that on the way he overcame a barrier that has long been in the possession of Roger Federer, who despite his playing crisis last night, will probably always be regarded as the best player in the history of the game.
This may have been an additional encouragement to the man from Dunblane yesterday because Richard Gasquet, who was thoroughly whipped in arguably Murray's most authoritative performance in this or any other Grand Slam tournament, is said to have a backhand that might only be bettered by the one belonging to the Swiss master.
There were certainly times when it announced itself as a weapon of scorching beauty on the Centre Court but fortunately for Murray, and a whole generation of tennis players across the world, the 25-year-old Frenchman plainly finds it a struggle getting hold of all those other virtues owned by the winner of 16 major tournaments.
They are of course the ones of relentless ambition and technical brilliance that have created an upper crust at this tournament which has presented Murray with his career challenge – the one of moving beyond the stage of his development that has taken him to three Grand Slam finals but without clinching evidence he might just be able to go all the way.
Yesterday was never going to provide overwhelming evidence either way, of course, but what it did show was that Murray has found an impressive degree of composure at a relatively advanced stage of the tournament.
Gasquet trailed glory into the fourth-round match as the free spirit of tennis who has the talent to overwhelm any opponent on any day. He did it in Rome earlier this year when he beat Federer and many believed he threatened Murray's progress more seriously than did the big-serving veteran from Croatia, Ivan Ljubicic, last Friday night.
If turned out to be something of an illusion, except for the sweet quality of that silky, biting backhand – either that or the possibility that the 24-year-old Murray may finally have come of competitive age at the highest level.
Murray's 7-6, 6-3, 6-2 fourth-round win in a little more than two hours is one of those results which brims with promise but has to be sent to the department of future analysis.
This is because the world No 13-ranked Gasquet in the end put in a performance that, if it didn't obscure some of his sumptuous natural gifts, mocked his billing as super-talent whose only professional defect is a certain unwillingness to apply himself to the challenge of battling into the zone currently occupied by the Big Three of Federer, a suddenly injury-bothered Rafa Nadal and a Novak Djokovic who yesterday returned to his most withering form.
Yet if Gasquet splintered into so many pieces after Murray smoothly raised the pressure after winning the first-set tie-break, there was enough evidence that he would indeed have been able to exploit anything that Murray might have offered him.
Later, the Scot admitted that he had been a little embarrassed to meet the Royal Couple in a sweat-stained condition, but in the matter of his most vital duty he could not be said to have been in any way gauche. He remembered the Duke and Duchess of Cambridgeshire had congratulated him on his performance, as well they might. This, certainly, was Murray at around his best.
He struggled to plunder much from Gasquest's first-set service game – he gleaned a mere five points from six games – but after proving too strong in the tie-break he produced a near perfect performance.
In the second set he also produced a statement of confidence that said rather more than his much celebrated Dunblane deke – the half-volley played between his legs that has so far baffled two opponents but could go horribly wrong at any moment.
Yesterday he played a drop shot of exquisite timing, something that he might have reserved for an Emperor rather than a mere Duke and Duchess. It not only stunned the Centre Court, it also told Gasquet, who had played a similar shot a little earlier, that he had examined his armoury and had found little to fear.
Indeed, by the final set Murray was not only playing some shots of breathtaking conviction and touch he was also suggesting that this might be the time when the most talented male British player in 75 years had grasped finally that he really didn't have anything to lose but his caution.
Most pleasing for Murray was the growing certainty of his serve. He saw off Gasquet with a barrage of aces and when each went he seemed to grow by at least an inch. He said later, "You just have to keep improving each match. It all comes down to taking your chances when you go against the best players.
"When I played against Rafa in the French Open I had many break-point opportunities and wasn't able to take them. So you learn you just have to get yourself in the right position in a match and then take it. For me, serving is very important. If I feel it is working I know I'm in a good position because my return is reliable."
Tomorrow he faces the bearded Feliciano Lopez, conqueror of Polish qualifier Lukasz Kubot and the source of some mock irritation from Murray, with his mother Judy's openly expressed admiration for the Spaniard, one that might not hinge entirely on the reliability of his serve and resourcefulness at the net.
Lopez, it is necessary to suspect, is on borrowed time – at least with the junior member of the family – and for the moment there is now just one significant issue. Murray has produced, according to some critical opinion, his least passive performance in a Grand Slam tournament. The question is, can he beat something more than a replica of Roger Federer's backhand?
It is perhaps a little early to say but this was certainly not the least encouraging evidence.
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