Murray revels in the loneliness of starring on centre stage - Tennis - Sport - The Independent

Murray revels in the loneliness of starring on centre stage

Briton brushes off pressure of Wimbledon as he prepares to take on Tsonga today

It was exactly the rallying cry you would expect from someone on the eve of his first Wimbledon quarter-final. "That statistic shows how good he is," Jo-Wilfried Tsonga said yesterday when told that Andy Murray, his opponent here this afternoon, had won his last 21 matches against French players. "It's just because he's better than all the French players. That's it. He has a better ranking and he's just a better player."

Tsonga was the last Frenchman to beat the Scot, having knocked him out en route to his only Grand Slam final at the 2008 Australian Open, and knows the size of his task. "I watched some of his match on Monday and he can play every shot," the world No 10 said. "He serves well, he has a good forehand and backhand, he is good on the baseline and the net. He can do everything."

Murray, in turn, will not underestimate the 25-year-old from Le Mans, an attacking player who loves playing on grass but, as the only man yet to drop a set here this year, Murray will start favourite to reach his second straight Wimbledon semi-final. In his last two matches in particular, the spark that took Murray to the Australian Open final five months ago has returned.

Just as Tsonga is looking forward to his first appearance on Centre Court – "You play for big moments like this," he said – so Murray relishes every chance to play there. They have taken their time, but the Wimbledon public have warmed to Murray with every match and he in turn has fed off their support.

"People make too much of the pressures of playing at Wimbledon," Murray said. "Tim Henman played his best tennis here throughout the years, without question. At the start of the event there are those nerves and that little bit of pressure that you need to get over – you can start a bit slowly in the first match – but once you get through it, you enjoy it. You have the home support and it makes you play a lot better."

He added: "You might be lonely on the court, but it's a good feeling. You have a lot of people there supporting you. It's lonely in a good way. For me, the tennis court is quite a relaxing place to be. That's what I'm comfortable doing. I've been playing tennis since I was a young boy. When you're out on the court it's where you learn to be comfortable.

"There are always nerves, but it's more of an excitement. I'm not scared of the situation. I'm not scared of who I'm playing. You're excited and it's great to be out on a court like that when the support is with you."

Tsonga comes from a sporting family. His father, Didier, who is now a science teacher, was a handball international, while Enzo, Jo-Wilfried's younger brother, plays basketball.

Tsonga may be better known in Britain for the incident that cost Carol Thatcher her job at the BBC last year – the daughter of the former prime minister made a backstage "golliwog" remark about him to the "One Show" presenter Adrian Chiles and a guest, Jo Brand – but his on-court success has made him a big name at home.

Murray remembers how Tsonga caught him cold in Melbourne two years ago, though the Scot believes the defeat helped make him a more consistent performer. "After losing that match, when I was expecting to do well in the tournament, I realised you can't go into events expecting to get to the second week or even the second round because you're a seeded player," Murray said. "You need to be ready right from the start."

How different does Murray think he is compared with the man who lost to Tsonga then? "I'm obviously a better player. I've played in a lot of big matches since then. I've been in the quarters and semis and finals of Slams since then."

Murray thinks he handles mid-match mini-crises much better these days, as he showed when digging his way out of trouble at the end of the first set against Sam Querrey on Monday. "With experience, you learn to deal with situations better; you learn how to manage your own game better, do what you feel comfortable with on the important points. When you're younger you go for a bit too much or make a silly mistake when you're behind. I definitely don't beat myself any more."

Tsonga said he would have to "be aggressive and be a bit lucky" to win today and is looking forward to the occasion. "I like sport like this, when there is a big atmosphere and when the public scream the names of players like Andy and myself," he said. "It's normal that the crowd will cheer for Andy, but I know they will be fair with me."

The Ali lookalike whose dad was at the 'Rumble'

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga tires of the references to him as a Muhammad Ali lookalike (click on 'more pictures', above). However, given that the Frenchman's father actually attended the "Rumble in the Jungle", when Ali beat George Foreman in Kinshasa in 1974, the comparisons are inevitable.

Tsonga's father, Didier, was born in Congo and lived in Brazzaville, which sits on the other side of the Congo River from Kinshasa. A handball international from a sporting family, he witnessed at first hand the most famous fight in history, when Ali regained the heavyweight world championship from Foreman using his "rope-a-dope" tactic of leaning back on the ropes and soaking up his opponent's punches. Didier took photographs of the fight, which his son now cherishes as souvenirs.

Jo-Wilfried's reluctance to talk about Ali was evident when he was asked about him en route to his appearance in the Australian Open final. Had he watched videos of his fights? "Of course, I've watched some DVDs," Tsonga said. Has Ali been an inspiration? "Maybe more now than when I was a child." How has he been an inspiration? "Maybe his personality on the court. Maybe I think I have the same tennis as his boxing." And what does he feel about the comparisons? "It's just an honour for me for me to be compared with him. That's all."

Paul Newman

Murray v Tsonga: The previous meetings

2007 Metz

Murray won 6-3, 6-3

Murray was rebuilding his confidence and his world ranking after missing the French Open and Wimbledon with a wrist injury. The Scot broke Tsonga's serve four times in this quarter-final and forced a total of 14 break points before completing victory in just 73 minutes. He went on to lose to Tommy Robredo in the final.

2008 Australian Open

Tsonga won 7-5, 6-4, 0-6, 7-6

Murray had won the Qatar Open en route to Melbourne, but Tsonga's all-out attacking style caught the Scot cold in this first-round match. The unseeded Frenchman – who went on to beat Rafael Nadal in the semi before losing to Novak Djokovic in the final – mercilessly attacked Murray's second serve and hit a succession of big forehand winners.

2009 Montreal

Murray won 6-4, 7-6

This semi-final victory took Murray to No 2 in the world rankings, but it was a close match. Tsonga had two set points to take the contest into a decider but made too many mistakes to stop Murray, who played patiently throughout. Murray beat Juan Martin del Potro in the final.

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