More than 10 million TV viewers won over by Murray
Wednesday 02 July 2008
He may be defiantly Scottish in the face of English attempts to co-opt him as a national hero. And he may sometimes not exude the kind of gentlemanly Henmanesque on-court charisma the Wimbledon faithful long for. Nor indeed, has he actually won a major tournament yet.
But yesterday Andy Murray, for so long written off as the petulant bête noire of British tennis, was basking in the warm glow of affection from a country badly in need of sporting titans this summer.
A perfect storm of a balmy evening, thrilling strokes and a plucky British fightback combined to persuade 10.5 million viewers to watch the 21-year-old's stunning five-set victory over Richard Gasquet on Monday night.
Until now, Murray has struggled to get the kind of viewing figures that Henman regularly achieved during his Wimbledon campaigns. While 13.5 million watched Henman's fourth round match against Michel Kratochvil in 2002, only two million people watched Murray's clash with Julien Benneteau four years later.
But, on Monday, the BBC ditched the opening episode of its new welfare fraud series On the Fiddle? to clear its main channel for the nailbiting climax – leaving schedules running 35 minutes late. Not that anyone was complaining, except ITV, which saw Coronation Street badly beaten in the ratings.
And with rain threatening to delay the start of proceedings at Wimbledon today and a fine evening forecast, few will be surprised if Murray's quarter final clash against world number two Rafael Nadal results in Celebrity MasterChef being similarly disposed of and "Murray Mania" reigning again on primetime BBC1. John Lloyd, the former Davis Cup star, said Murray's victory marked a decisive shift in the player's relationship with the fans, even comparing him to another Wimbledon favourite, Jimmy Connors. "Everyone loves fighters and, when they saw that raw emotion and passion, never thinking he was going to lose even when he was about to lose, they love that and I think he's won over just about everybody."
Conditions permitting, the former Dunblane schoolboy might comfortably expect to overturn the TV ratings record set at the height of Henmania.
The signs are that tennis fans are finally taking the young Scot to their hearts. By yesterday afternoon, 400 fans were already in the queue in the Wimbledon car park hoping to be courtside for Murray's biggest ever challenge. That number was expected to rise steadily overnight with thousands braving the elements to camp out.
Henman Hill, the grassy knoll behind Centre Court which – for nearly a decade – rang out to cries of "come on Tim", has been rechristened Murray Mound. Saltaires, if not exactly outnumbering Union flags, are now ever-present as well as blue and white painted faces.
Bookmakers believe Murray vs Nadal looks set to smash the tennis betting record set in Henman's halcyon days. A William Hill spokesman said: "'Even in Tim Henman's prime, he was never involved in a match that produced a betting turnover in excess of £5m but we are confident this game will do so and it could even go as high as £10m at stake on the match."
Despite the patriotic fervour, Nadal enters the match as heavy favourite.
For Wimbledon, Murray's exploits have added to an already successful tournament where the sun has shone and bumper audiences have turned up. And, so far, it is Murray who remains the star attraction, with organisers happy to accede to BBC requests to give the man viewer-friendly billing.
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