Murray forced to play waiting game as big rivals sharpen their challenges
As if Andy Murray did not have enough pressure building around him, a full scale conspiracy might have been working against his best hopes at least for a few hours last night.
If that sounds paranoid, it's a complaint that has few better breeding grounds when the rain keeps coming down here.
Murray started the day with the routine concern that the vagaries of the draw had left him in third-round ambush territory inhabited by an extremely menacing Croat, 32-year-old Ivan Ljubicic.
But by the time much of SW 19 was pouring itself a first gin and tonic of the day Murray was obliged to sweat out a rain delay, which was one problem he thought he was insulated against when he was returned to the protection of the Centre Court's roof after a brief and somewhat tortuous foray on Court One on Wednesday.
Murray left his second-round match with the dour German Tobias Kamke in need of some swift psychological restoration despite the fact that he won in three sets. While the ferocious trinity of reigning champion Rafa Nadal, the gilded veteran Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic had all been producing streaks of quite iridescent brilliance, Murray had been required to labour through a 7-5 third set.
This kind of thing happens regularly under the weight of Wimbledon expectation, of course, but when it does it is good to flush it away with the latest of the rainwater.
That was not possible yesterday when first Slovakia's Daniela Hantuchova fought her way back into her match with Victoria Azarenka, of Spain, taking it into three sets as Murray was forced into extended prowling in the locker room. Then it began to rain, a development that requires at least 45 minutes to get the roof and the air conditioning into full working order.
It meant that Murray was facing the likelihood of a match stretching beyond the 11pm cut-off imposed by the local council. That would have been irksome in any circumstances, even including the presence of a push-over on the other side of the net.
The trouble for Murray is that while Ljubicic can be described in many ways, push-over is not one of them. He was potentially the worst kind of nightmare for someone like Murray, who at No 4 is 29 places ahead of him in the world rankings. But this was not a statistic that brought too much comfort while the man from Dunblane, who is charged with being the first Briton to win the men's title here since Fred Perry pulled it off 75 years ago, applied himself to the task of staying calm.
One way of killing the time was not to research the track record of the man who held a 3-3 record from their previous matches, In his relative youth Ljubicic climbed to third place in the world rankings and he did this in ways designed to give him the chance of making Murray feel at least uncomfortable last night.
The Croat caused his first major stir as a 16-year-old after his family had dodged the worst parts of the volatile map of the Balkan war. He finished runner up in the world junior championship and showed the classic qualities of a modern challenger for serious rewards : a formidable serve and a canny awareness of his place on the court.
Over the years this has helped him build winnings of more than $5m and you do not do this if you cannot raise a major threat to the peace of mind of someone like Murray. There was not even the comfort of Ljubicic's poor Wimbledon record – an odd one in that he has always had credentials to do better on the fast surface – after his opening performance.
Then, the Croat cut down his highly regarded compatriot Maran Cilic before accounting for Sergiy Stakhovsky in straights sets to earn a shot at Murray.
For the Scot it meant that last night presented a whole raft of threats to his peace of mind, all of which could only be dispelled by the show of authority which failed to materialise against the obscure tennis citizen Herr Kamke.
Murray emerged from those labours vowing to bring a sharp improvement to his movement on the court. Too often he had felt less commanding against Kamke, which is not the best way to feel if you are seen as a serious contender to tear down the collective aura building around the firm of Nadal, Federer and Djokovic.
The imperative to move more sleekly was certainly increased by the Serb's often exquisite performance against South African Kevin Anderson in the second round. Djokovic said that he was hugely encouraged by his ability to return the big man's serve. "Good serving will always be important in this game," he said, "but on the slower grass here returning is getting to be more vital than ever. I'm pleased that I was able to return service so well today - it is another reason for encouragement. I was pleased with my movement and for me two straight-set wins couldn't be better."
Add that to the beautiful rhythm of Federer and the power and confidence of Nadal, and the extent of Murray's need to get on with his game scarcely needed underlining. The whole tournament has become a stage for building the confidence of three of the most brilliant players in the history of the game – and a fourth named Andy Murray who is expected these next few days to make his most serious challenge thus far for the great prize here.
It is a challenge some believe he is capable of meeting and there are times when he has had to reason to include himself in that number. However, there are times when any man's confidence comes under strain – and one of them is surely when you are obliged to wait in the glow of some brilliant performances by your most threatening rivals.
One thing was certain, at least. Andy Murray faced one of his longest, if not desperate nights.
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