James Lawton: Journey to the brink reveals a winner's competitive edge

Henman was the gallant fighter. Murray suggests he might just find a way to win, anyway required
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The Independent Online

This was Andy Murray's most perilous visit to the edge of a tournament into which he was beginning to slip as though it had been cut precisely to his needs.

But then the journey will have been worth every demanding and sometimes desperate stride because this time he was required to show that he knew how to fight his way out of the most menacing of trouble.

This time he had to slug his way off the ropes with no greater ambition than survival on this dangerous night and he did it well enough that we had reason to believe he can indeed bring home the hard result that was so elusive in all the yearning of the Henman years.

Tim Henman was the gallant fighter. Murray is the man who suggests he might just find a way to win, any way required. We saw it last night when he had to reconstruct himself in front of an expectant nation. For quite some time the nation thought it was being drawn down a familiar road of almost comically recurring despair.

The sharp surprise and tension was intensified by the fact that, for more than a week, Murray had been running ahead of the great man he has to beat to become a Grand Slam champion, and doing it so smoothly, so inevitably, he seemed to be growing at least an inch per match.

However, suddenly the roof was on the Centre Court, Wimbledon was running later than it had ever done before and the floor was sliding beneath his feet, literally at times.

It was not a predictable crisis, by any means, and it was deepened by the fact that now the threat wasn't Roger Federer next Sunday afternoon but another Swiss, the one who came blasting into his face last night, a former young farmer you may not have heard of – Stanislas Wawrinka.

Not a name that trips off the lips, not one to conjure as you do with that of King Roger, but however you wanted to patronise the uncelebrated Wawrinka, you couldn't argue with one of his best points.

It was that he hit the ball hard enough, especially on his backhand, to smash a way through the web of Murray's defence and the venom that lies within it. However, he could do it only for so long – a first set and half of another one and then the fourth, in which all the certainties of Murray's progress from Queen's Club two weeks ago to the second week of Wimbledon were thrown into doubt.

His mother and mentor, Judy, had a look of frozen concern and Murray on several occasions quite desperately sought the support of the crowd as the tennis player from Switzerland almost nobody knows swept to a 6-2 triumph in the first set.

Last year Murray was ransacked in the quarter-finals by the rising champion Rafael Nadal; now, a round earlier in the tournament which sooner or later is likely to define his career, he was suffering ambush. At times it was one carried by unanticipated prowess, a fierce and accurate service and that backhand which might have been fired by a high velocity rifle. But then if Wawrinka wasn't a household name, or a character in a Harry Potter novel, he was at this point a remarkably talented and motivated player.

The more he chanced his arm, the more he hammered the ball into the corners of the court, the more likely the world No 18 ranked player seemed to be capable of the first major convulsion of the tournament. And the more Murray seemed to shrink from those levels of brilliance, and composure that carried him to the weekend on a cloud of expanding aura and which had left Federer more than a little tetchy with each public assumption that the 22-year-old would inevitably be his opponent in the final.

"It's premature," snapped Federer. Last night it seemed worse than that. It seemed, frankly, rather presumptuous. But then Murray showed once again that if he has a range of brilliant shots, and excellent footwork, his best and fastest-growing asset is surely his competitive instincts.

When Wawrinka strolled to his seat after winning the first set he had the satisfied look of someone who had achieved a basic objective, which in this case was to attack the confidence of an opponent who had been looking a little more the part of an authentic title challenger with each of his matches.

Murray's face was less of a mask than at any stage of his latest Wimbledon experience. It was wearing a degree of anxiety not seen here since Nadal fired too much heavy armament at him this time last year. The difference, of course, was that here the repercussions would have been so much more deflating, if not damaging.

Nadal was a match to emerge from with honour, if not victory. Wawrinka was another step on the way to a target which was becoming increasingly familiar, another mark of progress in the vital business of winning when everything is not falling to you quite so sweetly as you would like.

Murray won the second and third sets in a surge of regained assurance and for a while it seemed that all the demons and the difficulties had been banished. He was asserting his right to a place at the top of the game and it would have been agreeable of Wawrinka if he had gently subsided beneath the weight of Centre Court desire. It was another test of Murray's hopes of repeating his Queen's Club semi-final triumph over Juan Carlos Ferrero in tomorrow's quarter-final that Wawrinka refused with considerable determination and carried the fourth set.

The Swiss from nowhere had made the fifth set – and we would know, for the moment or perhaps for ever, if Andy Murray was made to be a champion. The man from Dunblane confirmed it. After a tumultuous night he took that last set and suggested, once again, that he might just have what it takes.

Andy's acolytes Those kept up by Britain's No 1

By Jonny Davies

A few of Murray's fans will have been late to bed last night after watching the game. Here's who may have lost out on some beauty sleep:

*The Queen

An early retirer, the Queen wrote to Murray recently to congratulate him on his win at Queen's. The Scot was impressed: he said that he "put [the letter] in its own pile away from the bills". The Queen may have been less impressed at being kept up.

*Sean Connery

Murray this week revealed – via Twitter – that he had received a message of support from his fellow Scot. As a former 007 Connery will not have been shaken or stirred by the tardy finishing time.

*Gordon Brown

The Prime Minister, who recently invited Murray to Downing Street for lunch, must be tired at the moment and won't have liked the delay to bedtime. Brown is a keen tennis fan and, says Murray, "seemed to know everything that was going on" in the tennis world.

*Will Ferrell

Murray met his favourite comedian at the US Open last year. Ferrell mocked Murray's biceps-flexing from the stands before arranging a meeting. "That was awesome, man!" Ferrell told Murray. Time zones mean Ferrell will have been unfazed.

* Richard Branson

Branson was approached six years ago to sponsor the tennis protégé. "We made a derisory offer, so he quite sensibly went elsewhere," said Branson. Branson has supported Murray since and his family have been to tea at Branson's mansion.