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Wimbledon: Today's the day to go on strike (so you can watch Murray)

It's a pity the public-sector unions got their timing wrong – had they brought Britain to a standstill today rather than yesterday, the nation might have been hugely grateful given that a large proportion of it will be looking for an excuse to skip work this afternoon and watch Andy Murray play his semi-final against Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon.

The momentum that the 24-year-old Scot has built up during the tournament, with five authoritative wins, has been transformed into a surge of popular optimism that Murray could become the first Brit to win the men's singles championship since Fred Perry in 1936.

There is a wilderness in the landscape of most British sports, made bleaker by the notion that we nurtured so many games that other countries now dominate. Men's tennis has mostly yielded painful failure – though mention should be made that Virginia Wade won Wimbledon's Ladies' Singles in 1977 and that Sue Barker, the BBC's main tennis presenter, won the French Open a year earlier.

But you can reel off a list of men – from Bunny Austin, who lost a Wimbledon final in 1938 to Tim Henman who lost four semi-finals – who have come up short in white shorts. There were giddy hopes when the big-serving Canadian Greg Rusedski was adopted in the mid-90s, and went on to reach the final of the US Open, a feat for which he won BBC Sports Personality of the Year – a major award for coming second.

That Andy Murray should be the latest bearer of hopes is not surprising in terms of his playing ability but it is somewhat sudden given his previously distant relationship with tennis supporters.

Categorised in the tabloid media, and therefore in the public view, as a rather curmudgeonly Scot who once said he'd always support whichever football team England were playing against, Murray has had a tough time endearing himself to fans since he came to prominence during Wimbledon six years ago as a pasty, gangling teenager. (He was dumped out that year in the third round, wobbling with exhaustion, and seemingly overwhelmed at being nominated as the "next big thing").

His remoteness from the English-orientated, middle-class Wimbledon ethos has grown as his main achievements came abroad, reaching a US Open final in 2008 and Australian finals in 2010 and 2011.

Murray's two Wimbledon semi-finals before today have suggested that this was as far as he could go on grass, especially under the colossal, almost cruel weight of expectation. When he has won, he is British and when he loses he is Scottish.

But in this Wimbledon, the crowd and the television audience have taken to him, apart from the occasional idiot shouting "C'mon, Tim!"

Murray has played a more expansive game than his usual rearguard doggedness, and shown flashes of dry humour to disarm tormentors in the media. Monday's quip, "I'd have shaved if I'd known they were coming", in reference to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge appearing in the Royal Box, was self-mocking rather than surly. His mother, Judy, ever-present when he's playing, having coached his early years, has blossomed too, revealing on Twitter that she fancied her son's quarter-final opponent, Feliciano Lopez.

It may all be a prelude to Olympic hysteria next summer and also linked to the recent joy at the achievement of another prodigy from a British outpost, the golfer Rory McIlroy – but Murray has at last made Britain believe in him.

How Murray and Nadal spent the day

If today's clash between Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal matches the psychological battle played out during yesterday's warm-up, then Centre Court ticket-holders are in for a treat.

The British No 1, two matches away from ending the nation's 75-year search for a Wimbledon men's champion, admitted that even walking from the practice court to his car was tortuous.

Nadal, by contrast, breezed through a practice session, and performed an informal lap of honour to the delight of 300 fans on court 15, who screamed "We love you, Rafa!"

After penning a blog for the BBC, Murray arrived at midday and sought out left-hander Daniel Nestor for a 90-minute session on court 17.

The Scot was accompanied by hundreds of well-wishers who preferred the knock-up to the competitive games on the show courts.

Returning to the Surrey mansion he shares with his girlfriend, Kim Sears, the world No 4's low-key build-up to this afternoon's match continued with a session examining videos of Nadal's grass game for flaws.

Meanwhile, his outwardly relaxed Spanish rival signed autographs for fans and tested his troublesome left foot in front of the cameras. Nadal larked around with Evan Hoyt, the 16-year-old Welsh junior player, he invited to hit with him. The Spaniard asked for some second-serve pace deliveries to hit back. He shouted "Hey, come on!" when Hoyt thundered one down.

Nadal's form impressed one punter who placed the biggest Wimbledon bet recorded by William Hill – £140,000 on the Spaniard to beat Murray at odds of 1/2.

Murray said his primary concern on his "rest day" was to give nothing away. "My practice sessions are like events in themselves with so many people around the courts," he wrote on the BBC blog.

"Every time I make any sort of reaction, whether I laugh or shout or close my eyes, I hear the cameras going off. I'm always conscious that I don't want it to look like I'm messing about or maybe in pain, because by one reaction that can become a whole story, so I try to be as neutral as possible and that's not easy."

Adam Sherwin