If there was ever any doubt about how the British public's attitude towards Andy Murray has changed it came before the start of play here yesterday. Murray appeared as Centre Court had never seen him before, wearing a suit and tie in the Royal Box, as the All England Club honoured the sportsmen and women who had thrilled the nation at last summer's Olympics.
There was enthusiastic acclaim for everyone, but the biggest ovation was reserved for Murray as the crowd stood to acknowledge Britain's best tennis player for three-quarters of a century. Even Henman Hill, where thousands were watching on the big screen, erupted in applause. Heaven knows what the response will be if Murray goes on to win his next four matches to become the country's first male Wimbledon singles champion since 1936.
"It was a nice feeling," Murray said later, having swapped his suit jacket for a grey T-shirt. "Normally when you go out there and you are just walking out to the court, you don't really get the chance to enjoy that so much. You're obviously quite nervous and trying to concentrate on the match. Going in as a spectator is a bit different."
Murray will be hoping for similar support as he embarks on what could be the biggest seven days of his life tomorrow. After a first week in which most of the biggest names in his half of the draw have fallen by the wayside, Murray now does not have to beat anyone inside the world's top 20 to reach his second successive Wimbledon final.
"So long as when I get on the court everyone is behind me and I get the support going from the beginning of the matches that is all I can really ask for," Murray said. "It's my job to deal with everything else that goes on around Wimbledon, but if the crowd is behind me in the matches it definitely helps me raise my game. If they can do that, starting Monday, it will be a big help."
Murray learned the identity of his next opponent when Mikhail Youzhny beat Viktor Troicki in straight sets. The 31-year-old world No 26 has bags of experience and plenty of style, but usually lacks the major weapons to hurt the biggest names. He can also be a rather volatile character: a clip of the Russian drawing blood from his forehead after beating it repeatedly with his racket in frustration has long been a YouTube favourite.
"It's important to remember those things, especially if you are behind in matches," Murray said. "There's always a chance you could come back and he might get upset about something, but you can't go into the match banking on that. He can play some great tennis. He has played some of his best tennis in high-pressure matches before, like the Davis Cup, where he has had some big wins, so he can cope with pressure. He does like the grass as well."
Another potential threat to Murray was removed from his half of the draw when Ernests Gulbis, an unpredictable big hitter who can trouble anyone on his day, was beaten by Fernando Verdasco in straight sets. Verdasco, the world No 54, faces France's Kenny De Schepper, the world No 80, in the fourth round, with the winner to face Murray or Youzhny. Verdasco, a former world No 7, is not the player he was and has lost eight of his nine meetings with Murray, while De Schepper, who has never played the Scot, had won only one Grand Slam match before the tournament began last week.
If Murray can negotiate the next two rounds he is likely to meet Jerzy Janowicz in the semi-finals. The 6ft 8in Pole has made huge progress in the past 12 months, having climbed from No 109 in the world rankings at the end of last year's Wimbledon to his present position at No 22. He beat Murray in their previous meeting, in Paris last November, en route to his first Masters Series final.
After his experiences last summer, when he reached the Wimbledon final and returned to win Olympic gold four weeks later, Murray increasingly feels at home in this environment. He has yet to drop a set in three matches and played his best match of the week when he beat the Spaniard Tommy Robredo under the Centre Court roof on Friday evening.
"This is probably my eighth time here and you start to feel more comfortable," he said. "The first few days are still tough and quite stressful. You're quite anxious to get out there on court. But yesterday was a good sign for me. I played well, and hit the ball cleanly from the first point till last."
Murray said that winning the Olympics at the All England Club had given him the best 10 days of his career. "I don't think it will ever really be topped," he said. "Yes, it was ahead of the US Open, because the whole experience was just great. The first Olympics I went to I still said at the time was one of my best experiences, because I got to meet all the other athletes and go to see all the other sports. Obviously having it here, that was never going to happen again, but with the way the 10 days went it was great."
Frustrated Baker quits
Jamie Baker never rose higher than world No 186 but the 26-year-old Scot will be a significant loss to British tennis following his announcement yesterday that he is to retire for a career in finance. What Baker lacked in natural ability he more than made up for in commitment, an attitude exemplified by his recovery from a life-threatening blood disease in 2008. He played in five British Davis Cup ties and is a boyhood friend of Andy Murray, who invited Baker to join his training camp in Miami at the end of last year. When Baker qualified to play at this year's Australian Open Murray's joy was evident. But having spent so much time around Murray, Baker found it difficult readjusting to grinding out results on the lesser circuits. A fellow Briton, Josh Goodall, the world No 312, is also considering his future.
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