Murray draws on strength and momentum for toughest test
After his sensational comeback, Andy Murray faces the greatest challenge of his career when he takes on Rafael Nadal in the Wimbledon quarter-finals today
Wednesday 02 July 2008
After Brad Gilbert introduced Andy Murray to a new fitness trainer two winters ago, the American coach announced a target for his charge. "I'm hoping that he can bust sleeveless at Wimbledon 2008," Gilbert said. "That's the litmus test, busting sleeveless. Then you've got some guns."
The "guns" were evident on Monday night, when Andy Murray rolled up a sleeve to show his newly-sculpted biceps after his dramatic five-set victory over Richard Gasquet, but when the Scot enters Centre Court with Rafael Nadal this afternoon you can be assured that only one of the quarter-finalists will be wearing a sleeveless shirt. Murray believes he has the game to beat the world's second best player, but there would be only one winner of a Mr Muscle contest.
Nadal is the strong-man of tennis, a formidable athlete who in 2006 and 2007 defied those who said that the demands of the modern game were such that it was physically impossible to dominate the clay-court season and then conquer grass. This year he has again reigned supreme on clay, winning the French Open for the fourth year in succession, and is aiming to reach his third consecutive Wimbledon final, having lost to Roger Federer in the past two.
All the indications, moreover, are that his grass-court game is better than ever. Having become the first Spaniard for 36 years to win a tournament on grass when he took the Artois title at Queen's Club 17 days ago, Nadal has been improving in every match here. Last year he had to come from two sets down to beat Mikhail Youzhny in the fourth round; at the same stage on Monday he swept the Russian aside for the loss of only seven games to take his recent run on grass to 21 wins in 23 matches.
If the mentally fragile Gasquet was always likely to implode under the joint pressure of Murray's tennis and a passionate Centre Court crowd, there is little danger of Nadal being similarly psyched out. The 22-year-old Spaniard, whose natural charm wins over fans around the world, said he had always found the Wimbledon crowd respectful. "I always feel the people are with me, so that's very nice," he said.
Nadal has 28 titles to his name, including four in Grand Slams and 11 in Masters Series events. Murray, who is one year younger, has won five titles, all in comparatively minor tournaments. He has never played in a Masters Series final and today will be his first Grand Slam quarter-final.
While their head-to-record appears to offer Murray little hope, the Scot will derive confidence from his two displays against the Spaniard last year. Like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who beat Nadal at this year's Australian Open, Murray attacked the world No 2 at every opportunity, alternating between aggressive ground strokes, keeping Nadal at the baseline, and drop shots or stop volleys.
In Melbourne last year in particular – a match Murray regarded as his greatest performance until his back-from-the-dead win over Gasquet – the tactics very nearly paid off. We can expect more of the same today.
"I have to look at the guys that have given him trouble and the way that Tsonga played against him in Australia this year," Murray said. "It will be really important to serve well, to be aggressive, not give him a chance to start dictating the rallies."
After the extraordinary scenes on Centre Court on Monday night you sense that anything is possible. Even if Murray's on-court behaviour is so different from Tim Henman's – even in his dreams the former Wimbledon semi-finalist would surely never have climbed on to a wall to pump up the Centre Court crowd like Murray did – there is every indication that, like his predecessor as the country's flag-bearer, Wimbledon will bring the best out of him.
Murray loves the big occasion and the interaction with the crowd produced a remarkable reaction in both parties. Until Murray turned the tide with his stunning backhand winner in the third set tie-break, there had been periods of near silence. Thereafter, however, the decibels rose game by game as one of the most remarkable comebacks in Wimbledon history unfolded.
The Centre Court crowd, as well as the British public at large, have taken their time to embrace Murray in the way they did Henman, but maybe now they will take the Scot at face value.
Murray said yesterday that he believed Monday's match could be a turning point in his Wimbledon career. "The crowd really lifted me when I was behind and the roar when I went ahead was just amazing," he said. "It gave me so much confidence.
"I've never experienced the effect of the crowd in that way anywhere in the world before. I could hear people in the crowd just shouting 'Come on Andy!' or 'Go Andy!' and it gave me goosebumps. It makes me concentrate that extra bit more or gives me that confidence and courage to go for a winning shot.
"If the Centre Court crowd really get behind me and help me to play my best tennis, then I honestly believe I have a great chance. I've had a really good rest and time to recover."
Murray looked relaxed on the practice courts at Aorangi Park yesterday afternoon. He warmed up with Miles Maclagan, his coach, before hitting with Barry Cowan, the Briton who took Pete Sampras to five sets here seven years ago, giving him a feel for facing a left-hander.
Two courts away a left-handed Spanish quarter-finalist was also going through his paces, but it was not Nadal. Feliciano Lopez, the big-serving world No 35 who meets Marat Safin today, called across to Murray: "How was the double fault at 30-40?" "Good," Murray replied, recalling the point that give him a break as Gasquet served for the match.
"You were serving like an animal," Lopez said. "Yeah, I was serving like you," Murray responded. If the Scot can do the same today, expect the Centre Court crowd to spend most of the afternoon on their feet.
Murray master: How Nadal has dominated the Scot
2007 Australian Open (hard): Nadal won 6-7, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1
Murray was attacking from the start and was more assertive throughout. Regularly coming to the net, Murray upset Nadal with his combination of aggressive ground strokes – which kept the Spaniard pegged to the back of the court – stop volleys and drop shots. Murray had two points for a 3-1 lead in the fourth set, but Nadal hung on and dominated the final set to win in just under four hours.
2007 Madrid Masters (hard): Nadal won 7-6, 6-4
Murray again adopted an attacking strategy, as his tally of 33 winners and 38 unforced errors shows. He dropped only two points in his first three service games, but later his first serve faltered and Nadal took advantage. Murray broke serve in the opening game of the second set and had two points for 5-2, but Nadal broke the Scot in his last two service games.
2008 Hamburg Masters (clay): Nadal won 6-3, 6-2
On his 21st birthday Murray found himself outplayed. The Scot performed well in patches but Nadal, who put 79 per cent of his first serves in court, rarely looked in trouble. Murray made an early break in the second set, but Nadal broke back immediately and went on to win in an hour and 18 minutes.
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