When Andy Murray met Rory McIlroy: But will McIlroy prove to be a major inspiration?
Media scrum breaks out when the US Open champion turns up to British No 1's practice session for today's quarter-final with Lopez
Wednesday 29 June 2011
Victoria Azarenka must have wondered what all the fuss was about. The world No 5 was minding her own business, going through a pre-match training routine with her coach and physical trainer, when 23 people came through the gate behind her and walked on to the adjoining practice court. Some were even carrying rackets.
Andy Murray's entourage can test the capacities of even the bigger player boxes at tournaments, but the scrum that formed before the 24-year-old Scot's lunchtime practice session yesterday was something else.
Most of those on court, to be fair, were there to record the very public first meeting of the two leading contenders for this year's BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. Rory McIlroy, the US Open golf champion, is currently the odds-on favourite to win the honour, but could be usurped if Murray wins his next three matches, beginning with today's quarter-final against Feliciano Lopez, and becomes the first British male singles champion here for 75 years.
"I'm a big tennis fan," McIlroy said. "I grew up watching Tim Henman here at Wimbledon and cheering him on every summer. Now that's been passed over to Andy. We're all behind him and hopefully he can win his first Grand Slam."
John McEnroe, another of the Aorangi 23, asked McIlroy if he had any advice for Murray. "Not really," McIlroy said. "He's playing awesome. He looked great yesterday. Keep doing what you're doing."
Murray, who had watched McIlroy win at Congressional the night before his first match at Wimbledon last week, asked the golfer about his upcoming plans. Like Murray, McIlroy is a big boxing fan and said he would be practising for the next three days before travelling to Hamburg to watch Britain's David Haye fight Wladimir Klitschko for the heavyweight world title. Murray, another aficionado of the noble art, has become friends with Haye since they were both training in Miami earlier this year.
Although Murray plays golf, he admitted his brother Jamie was the better player. He said he had tried a putting game which has been set up in the players' locker room but was "terrible" at it. "I don't do it that much," he said. "This year they've got this new thing that goes up a little ramp. There's water on the left and sand on the right and then the hole in the middle, which I've had a few goes at. I've actually missed the machine completely a few times. I blame the carpet."
The social niceties completed, McIlroy left to allow Murray to get on with the serious work of preparing for today's quarter-final. The world No 4 practised with the Canadian Daniel Nestor, one of the world's best doubles players and, more importantly, a big-serving left-hander like Lopez.
Murray has beaten Lopez in all four of their previous meetings for the loss of just one set, but will not be underestimating the world No 44 on his favourite surface. Unlike a more famous Spanish left-hander, his good friend Rafael Nadal, Lopez thrives on the quicker conditions. He is one of the few modern players who likes to play serve-and-volley. The 29-year-old has hit more aces (100) in the first four rounds here than any other player.
"He's got a good game for grass with his leftie serve and he naturally comes forward," Murray said. "He's got a nice sliced backhand, so he's a tough guy to play on grass."
The two men know each other well - and not only as a result of Judy Murray's admiration for the good-looking Spaniard she calls "Deliciano". Lopez is a good friend of Alex Corretja, who was Murray's part-time coach until they parted company earlier this year. "I wouldn't say I'm friends with Feliciano, but I know him pretty well," Murray said.
Despite reaching his third Wimbledon quarter-final Lopez had had an indifferent year until he arrived at the All England Club. His only significant successes came, ironically for a fast-court addict, during the clay season, when he reached the quarter-finals in Barcelona, where he lost to Ivan Dodig, and the final in Belgrade, where he lost to Novak Djokovic. He went out of the Australian Open to the local teenager Bernard Tomic in the second round and to Federer in the first round at Roland Garros.
If you put aside Murray's Spring slump, when he lost four matches in a row without losing a set, the Scot has had an exceptional year. Having reached the Australian Open final for the second time in a row he capped his best clay-court season with a run to the semi-finals of the French Open, won the Aegon Championships at Queen's Club in his first appearance of the year on grass and has now reached the quarter-finals here for the fourth year in succession.
After a moderate start Murray has improved significantly in his last two matches, against Ivan Ljubicic and Richard Gasquet, though he appreciates the need to guard against complacency.
"You just need to just keep improving a little bit each round," Murray said. "It all comes down to taking your chances when you play against the best players. When I played against Rafa at the French Open I had many break point opportunities and wasn't able to take them. You need to get yourself in the right position in the match and take it.
"For me, serving is very important. If I serve very well then I'll have a chance because my return is normally consistent. I normally give myself quite a few chances to break during matches. If I can be solid on serve, that will make a difference."
Murray said he felt comfortable as an established member of the game's big four alongside Nadal, Federer and Djokovic. "I've been there for a good three, four years now," he said. "I've been up there with them and won against them quite a lot of times. I'd like to get the chance to win against them in one of these competitions. That would definitely help me, but I think I'm up there with them."
Do the other players defer to the top four and treat them any differently? "I don't know. Obviously I wouldn't expect people to treat me the same as they treat Roger or Rafa, but when I'm playing at Wimbledon I think for me it's definitely an advantage having a home court and having the support with you. I've had good results here the last few years, so I'd hope the players are a little bit nervous when I play against them."
Did he feel any greater weight of expectation given that he is facing a lower-ranked opponent than he might have expected to meet in the quarter-finals? "No, there's always pressure. In every round there's pressure because from the first round you're expected to win. That can obviously add a bit of pressure. I think once you get to this stage of the tournament, whoever's getting there is going to have confidence in their game."
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