Andy Murray waited two years to play again at his home Grand Slam tournament and when the Scot finally returned to Centre Court here last night he was clearly determined to make up for lost time. Murray beat Fabrice Santoro 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 with a performance full of promise for the tougher challenges that lie ahead. They will start tomorrow with a second-round contest against Belgium's Xavier Malisse, a former semi-finalist here.
While 35-year-old Santoro is not the force he was, the Frenchman provided an ideal test for Murray, who missed last year's championships with the wrist injury that took three months out of his season and brought a temporary halt to his progress. The 21-year-old British No 1 has been steadily rebuilding his career ever since and has been quietly confident that the next fortnight can provide him with one of the highlights of his fledgling career.
It was a different-looking Murray to the slightly gawky teenager who last played here in the fourth round two years ago, when he lost to Marcos Baghdatis. The baseball cap has gone – with a closer-cropped hairstyle the Scot says he does not need any headwear to keep his vision clear – and the clean-shaven look might help to win over those parts of Middle England which have yet to take him to their hearts in the way they embraced Tim Henman.
When the match began shortly after 5.30 the Centre Court crowd was hardly crackling in anticipation. There were plenty of empty seats – the stadium had been fuller for the preceding contest featuring Rafael Nadal's first appearance here this year – though the court gradually filled up during the late afternoon and early evening.
The match was a tennis connoisseur's delight. Santoro is one of Murray's favourite players and has a unique style. If the world No 54 lacks power, he more than makes up for it with the intelligence and subtlety of his game. He hits double-handed on both sides – he has played with both hands on his forehand ever since his father gave him a heavy racket as a boy – and sometimes runs around his forehand to hit a backhand instead.
Earlier this year Santoro broke Andre Agassi's record for the number of Grand Slam tournaments played in the Open era. This is his 64th appearance at a Grand Slam and in playing a singles match on Centre Court he was realising one of his last ambitions in tennis.
While none of the modern generation plays quite like Santoro, Murray's game is probably closer to his than anyone else's. The world No 11 has a reputation as a smart player who tries to out-think as much as out-hit his opponents. In an age where strength, stamina and power are generally a player's greatest asset, it was a joy to see a contest fought in the head as much as with the racket.
At times there was more spin on display than at a political aides' convention. At others it felt like being in a time warp as both men attempted to outfox each other with subtle spins, variations of pace and delicate drop shots. You almost expected the players to stand by the umpires' chair at the change of ends, pull wooden rackets out of their bags and start playing with white balls.
While Murray relished the chance to pit his wits against the player Pete Sampras nicknamed "The Magician", he also knew he had the firepower to beat a player who has been starting to feel his age. In Santoro's previous Grand Slam appearances this year he suffered second-round defeats in Melbourne to Roger Federer, who dropped only three games, and in Paris to David Ferrer, who gave the Frenchman only one.
Murray's start spoke volumes for his confidence and he held his opening service game with four perfect points, a forehand winner behind a 130mph serve, a service winner, a smart volley and a fine drop shot. At 1-1 Murray broke serve, converting his second break point with a lovely lob.
The only danger for Murray was in getting drawn into too many cat-and-mouse rallies. When Santoro got to break point at 3-2, his deft forehand to the incoming Murray's feet tempted the Scot into trying a half-volley drop shot that he put into the net. To Murray's credit, however, he immediately restored his advantage, converting his fourth break point with a backhand cross-court return winner. At 3-5 Murray broke again to take the set as Santoro, under pressure, hit a lob long.
However, any suggestion that the match might be straightforward from here was dismissed as Santoro broke serve in the opening game of the second set thanks to a point that summed up the match. Having chased down what looked likely to be a winning drop shot, the Frenchman then had to hare back to the baseline to retrieve a Murray lob. The Scot could hardly believe his eyes as Santoro not only got to the ball but then hit a glorious backhand pass down the line.
It took Murray until the eighth game to retrieve the break of serve and, just as in the first set, he followed it with a second successive break to take the set. Two fine Santoro volleys saved the Scot's first two set points, but on the third Murray hit a superb winning lob.
Santoro had to save two break points in his first service game in the third set, but the Frenchman refused to go quietly and there were no more breaks of serve in the match. In the tie-break Murray made the only mini-break thanks to yet another drop shot and, although Santoro saved two match points on his serve, it only delayed the inevitable and at 6-5 Murray chased down a drop shot to hit a backhand winner down the line. His clenched fist told you how much the victory meant to him.