James Lawton: Intense and brilliant, Murray has never looked so at home
People were pointing to the new calmness of Murray, the new easiness in his own skin
History beckoned to Andy Murray on the Centre Court yesterday. It came in the sublime form of Roger Federer and for a little while it seemed that the invitation to tomorrow's final could not have been sent in a more appropriate direction.
Murray was waiting and primed for a major performance. It was though he was saying that his time might have come and that all the baggage and all the grief and the bleak self-examination might just be put on one side.
His response to Federer's systematically beautiful demolition of defending champion and world number one Novak Djokovic was so intense and brilliant that some believed he had never looked more at home at the business end of a Grand Slam tournament.
Maybe that particular prize still properly belongs to his semi-final victory over Rafael Nadal in the US Open four years ago, which took him to a final defeat by Federer, but when you considered the pressure and the possibilities that crowded around yesterday, Murray played two sets against the sometimes strong and inspired Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga that spoke of a new conviction and control.
There was not a signal grimace aimed at his taut and anxious entourage. There was not a moment of eviscerating self-doubt.
The man who put himself in the charge of major tournament winner Ivan Lendl seemed to be saying that if the great Federer was intent on re-inventing some of the best of his times – and win an astounding, historic seventh Wimbledon title and 17th Grand Slam – he was seeking out some of the first of his own.
At 25 he had waited a lot longer than he had expected in that surge of glory in New York, when Nadal was overcome and Federer just a little too smart and composed in the final, but his moment had come now and he was not for a single moment of deflection.
Or so it seemed in a second set in which the degree of his determination was matched only by the boldness of his service returns and several forehand drives of the highest quality. Tsonga clawed back break points and it seemed that he had survived a crisis that might have stopped him dead. But the Frenchman relaxed too soon after winning an advantage. At this point on a day of gathering tension, Murray was quite remorseless. He won the game. He won the second set and there he was, Roger Federer, the greatest player in the history of tennis, squarely in his sights.
Some were even beginning to chart the evidence suggesting that when Murray, tiring of all the near misses piled one upon the other in all the Grand Slam tournaments, turned to the gnarled old champion Lendl, he had made the most vital move of his sporting life.
People were pointing to the new calmness of Murray, the new easiness in his own skin. They were saying that he had come through the worst of his doubts and now the natural strength of his game, the beauty of his shots and the intelligence of his thinking, would find new levels of expression.
It was a pretty, even irresistible thought that as Tsonga, a player who can move between heaven and hell quicker than most of us get out of bed, went two sets down – and promptly called for medical assistance for an apparently creaking back.
But then perhaps even the more practised Murray watcher had been a little quick to reach out for those levels of optimism. Maybe Murray still had time to find a way to make life difficult for himself – and of course he did.
It didn't help that Tsonga had done the equivalent of pick up his bed and walk.
Tsonga's brilliant coverage of the net found a new dimension of confidence. He was combative and cheerful in the way of his better days. He was ready to take on this new and imperious upstart – who led him 5-1 in head-to-head collisions – and remind him that he had a little of the decent stuff too.
He showed it with some shots of dazzling deftness. His service game strengthened and suddenly there were plenty of opportunities for Murray to resurrect those desperate looks to the heavens and all those screams of recriminations.
The point, though, was that he didn't. He kept both his head and his resolve, even when the third set was swept away after he yielded his service without scoring a point, and there were times in the fourth set when Murray seemed once again to have regained control. He won two break points on one Tsonga service game but each time the final, killing stroke went missing.
There was also a dawning sense that for Murray quite the worst possible development was unfolding. Tsonga, a player who lives and dies by the shifts of his moods, was beginning to enter one that might just have been described as serene. A big smile covered his face and, of course, Murray's became correspondingly taut.
Yet he stayed in front in the fourth set and might have broken Tsonga for the match. Then, in the 12th game, he gained a vital edge and held two match points.
He had embraced history and then he had struggled as the prospect of it became increasingly doubtful but now, finally, the moment had come again – and this time he took it, with a brilliant cross-court forehand, one that might, who knows, bring the odd flicker of concern to the great man whom he faces on this same court tomorrow afternoon.
There was the briefest of anti-climaxes when Murray was required to challenge the line judge's decision that his lacerating shot had drifted out. It hadn't, the re-run showed, and a huge roar of relie went up to the sunlit south-west London sky.
Roger Federer had sent out the invitation with some bewildering fine tennis at the approach of his 31st birthday. He has had some thin years, the ones that point the best of champions to the exit door, but now he wanted some company for perhaps the last of his hurrahs. Andy Murray, in the end, said that he would indeed come along. He may, who knows, just prove a less than totally pliant guest.
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