Andy Murray’s hold on Wimbledon is incomparable

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LONDON — Andy Murray felt a bit on edge ahead of Wimbledon.

“When I walk out onto Centre Court to play, obviously I’m very nervous, but incredibly excited to get the chance to perform here again on one of, if not the most special court, in our sport,” he said before his first match.

Nerves are a good thing in Murray’s mind — they show he’s ready and he’s feeling optimistic for another run at the place where the nostalgia he has generated is inescapable.

That’s what happens when you’re the man who, in 2013, ended a 77-year wait for a British men’s singles champion at Wimbledon, and served Novak Djokovic his last defeat on Centre Court. Now the 10-year anniversary of that triumph, the memories, floods of highlights and broadcast images of Murray smiling in utter disbelief at his win over Djokovic were dotted throughout everything to do with this year’s tournament.

But, a decade later, there’s still the real thing there on Centre Court, playing with all the eagerness and expectation of the young star we saw break through. The vision remains the same, the heart-on-sleeve mentality he carries and the complete lack of a filter with his emotions are unchanged. It’s a captivating experience watching him, and the crowd loves him because of it.

The 36-year-old Murray we’ve seen here this week has been unmissable. He changed his service action ahead of this year’s grass season. He was messing around in practice and simplified the start of the whole process: less sway, just a touch more efficiency and tidiness. It was a little dab of improvement as he started the whole process of targeting Wimbledon for the third time.

He came into this tournament in decent form — having won at Surbiton and Nottingham — but crucially unseeded. The crowd saw him navigate his way against Ryan Peniston in the first round — his first all-British meeting since he faced Liam Broady in the first round in 2016.

Murray said he felt the best he had since before his hip surgeries in 2018 and 2019, which had plucked him back from the door of retirement. There were omens everywhere of a potential Murray run along with momentum and hope.

But there was world No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas in his way. On Thursday evening, we saw Murray embody Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night.” He had Centre Court believing in him once again, as he pacified Tsitsipas’ forehand, attacked the net and held a 2-1 set advantage, before the 11 p.m. curfew ended play for the night.

In the penultimate point of the night, Murray let out a scream of pain and some feared that an injury to his left hip/groin area would affect his ability to play Friday. But Murray is used to overnight recoveries, and there he was at lunchtime Friday, out on the anonymity of the practice courts he has walked on for 19 years, getting the feeling back in his legs and hands.

While Thursday’s match was played under the roof, on Friday midafternoon it was opened. The arena was filled with light as Murray aimed for what would’ve been his 200th Grand Slam win, and his best result against a player ranked in the top five since Roland Garros 2016.

But Tsitsipas took the fourth set, pushing Murray again to a fifth. It’s an inevitability of watching Murray these days that a match will go the distance. He said before the tournament that he needs to minimize how often this happens, after going through two grueling five-setters at the Australian Open before losing in the third round. But he was able to keep it under five in only the first round.

Ultimately, the man 12 years his junior edged the points at the key moments, and left Murray swiping his racquet in frustration and wearing the anguished look of a man who knows an opportunity is slipping through his hands. At one stage, his cap bore the brunt of his frustration. He crunched it into the size of a tennis ball, before placing it back on his head.

It begs the question: He has already proved himself to the world, and become a national icon in the process — why continue to put himself through it all? But it’s simple, really. It’s because of love. And that love of the sport means that for the time being, there’s motivation enough to justify to himself the amount of time he spends away from his family, the pain and the inevitable peaks and troughs in his way.

The strength of feeling he has for the sport was evident throughout the match, which took 4 hours 40 minutes to complete but 23 hours from start to finish. After the match, as he articulated his disappointment as best he could due to the overpowering feeling of heartbreak at his early defeat — he was reminded of one particular point. It came in the ninth game of the fourth set. Murray was already two sets to one up at this point, Tsitsipas fighting to get a foothold back in the clash.

Murray was 30-15 up on Tsitsipas’ serve. He hit a crosscourt backhand at the most impossible of angles. It was called out — Tsitsipas managed to return it, but the original call stood. Murray looked up to his box. He decided not to review it. Seconds later, the ball was shown having kissed the line. It went to 30-30, instead of possibly 15-40 and two break points. Murray learned it was in only when told in the postmatch media conference.

“The 15-30 point, my return was in?” he responded when asked how frustrated he was at having been handed the wrong call. “Yep,” came the answer. “Oh …” his fingers pinched the bridge of his nose, Murray kicking himself in public at missing an opportunity to potentially force Tsitsipas into a break point, and maybe giving himself a chance to serve out. “That’s obviously frustrating,” he said. It hurt. An opportunity gone.

Just a few miles away from the Wimbledon courts on Friday night, Billy Joel was scheduled to play to a sold-out Hyde Park crowd. Bruce Springsteen played Thursday. But Murray was the other box office attraction in town across that 24-hour spell. And like them, Murray’s not yet ready to do a farewell tour. But after defeats like Friday’s, it’s just harder to summon that will to go again. “Motivation is obviously a big thing,” Murray said after the match. “Continuing having early losses in tournaments like this don’t necessarily help with that. Yeah, it’s similar to, I guess, last year. I had a long think about things, spoke to my family, decided to keep on going.

“I don’t plan to stop right now. But, yeah, this one will take a little while to get over. Hopefully find the motivation again to keep training, keep pushing, try and keep getting better.”

And so it’ll be back to the courts and the ice baths, tweaking his playing style here and there, trying to make life easier for his body. It’s all with the goal of allowing himself to have one more fortnight in the sun. That will and fight is why this place adores him. And it’s why he’ll have the place on the end of his racquet once again next year if he attempts to make one more run on the patch of grass he calls his home.

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