As Andy Murray tossed the ball into the air, drawing every ounce of strength from the fraying sinews in his hip, for a fleeting second it felt as though nothing had changed. The Centre Court crowd, who had missed him so sorely these past four years, were enchanted from the moment he set foot on the grass, a solitary wave welcoming their support. The roof overhead peeled back and, if not revealing glorious sunshine, a few rays at least fought their way through the clouds that had cast a shadow over Wimbledon. And from high above, a first thunderous ace crashed into the corner of the service box, where Nikoloz Basilashvili was just another bystander caught in the spectacle.
Three hours and 32 minutes later, the skies had long turned black and the floodlights exaggerated every pained grimace until, finally, Murray could beat his fists and breathe one of the deepest sighs of relief in his storied career. Even by his roller-coaster stakes, this had threatened to become the most agonising of false dawns, where victory seemed intent on slipping through his fingers, no matter how hard he grasped for it.
The 34-year-old had summoned all his experience and cunning to tame Basilashvili’s belting power and edge the opening two sets. And when Murray raced into a 5-0 lead in the third, conjuring echoes of his peak, the contest had been reduced to little more than an exhibition, with the Scot’s artful precision turning victory into a procession.
But with the finish line in sight, Murray became arrested by nerves and his conviction deserted him in an instant. His first serve, which had been so impenetrable, was robbed of its pace. In the midsts of gruelling rallies, he began to second guess his groundstrokes, bailing out of potential winners and proffering drop shots that reeked of desperation rather than guile. His legs were heavy, his blood ran hot, and he conspired to lose the next seven games in succession, with only screams of fury cutting through the disbelieving silence on Centre Court.
So many unknowns had trailed Murray into this tournament - the questions of fitness, fatigue, and the unavoidable rust that he laboured under at Queen’s. But amid all the scrutiny of his physicality, what had been overlooked was the mental scar tissue. Prior to this, Murray had won just two tour level matches this year and needed a wildcard to reach the main draw. The apprehension that emerged betrayed the true weight of this victory - validation for all the sacrifices, justifying the toil through which he’s persevered since his body began to fail.
Lost in a tempest of self-destruction, a 10-minute reprieve allowed the roof to close and time for Murray to regather his thoughts. Still visibly distraught when he re-emerged from the locker room, he called upon every last drop of stubborn resolve to break Basilashvili to love. The catharsis, though, was short-lived. The pair exchanged breaks with a readiness that bordered on the ridiculous, any advantage guiltily surrendered almost immediately. A match that had begun as a battle between poise and power was now being fought purely on disintegrating mettle. But with his momentum halted by the pause, Basilashvili blinked first and a series of sloppy errors handed Murray hope once again.
Of course, it was destined to be a struggle, right down to the last heave. Needing a break to finish the match, they see-sawed back to deuce three times until finally, at the fourth time of asking, Murray broke Basilashvili’s resistance once and for all. A flat backhand sunk into the net and only adrenaline saved Murray from collapsing with exhaustion. This was the type of gruelling war of attrition he has so often relished and has always personified the spirit of Murray’s career. But only in the morning, when the adrenaline subsides and the aches set in, will he know its true cost.
Yet, as he gazed down at the grass that had so nearly betrayed him and gathered all his remaining strength to celebrate, that did not matter. In spite of all the duress, the doubt was vanquished, the pain was exorcised and the drama lives on in a career that refuses to fade. Deep into the darkness at Wimbledon, Murray still burns bright in the British imagination.
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