By Alix Ramsay
Oh, dear God – do we really have to do this all over again on Friday? Can we stand it? My little country has come through many a torrid time over the centuries (and we have never quite forgiven the French as a result) and we have even endured a decade of Dame Timothy Henry Henman’s teatime terrors, but nothing had prepared us Murray in the quarter-finals on Wednesday. Who knows if we have the strength to face the semis.
On paper, the world No.2 against the world No.54 looks straight forward enough. In theory, Scotland’s finest taking on a bloke he had beaten eight times out of nine was simple. And logic dictated that a man who had only ever reached one major semi-final in his life – and that was four years ago – should not have the wherewithal to trouble a grand slam and Olympic champion, particularly when that champion was playing in his own back yard.
But if Wimbledon has taught us anything these past nine days it is that there is no logic this year in SW19: those who should have won have lost while those who should have lost are still hanging around and scaring the living bejaysus out of the remaining seeds.
And for three hours and 26 minutes, Verdasco did just that to Murray. Only in the 27th minute did the watching faithful – their nerves shredded, their fingernails gnawed and their knickers knotted to the point of no return – allow themselves to breathe. By that point, the Muzz had a little collection of match points to call his own and the agony was almost over. And when it was finally done 4-6, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-5, they cheered like never before.
One of the strangest parts of this year’s mayhem has been the crowd’s response to the Muzz. In days of yore, Dame T’s performances were helped along by desperate cries of “C’mon, Tim”, an encouraging yelp that just made the man in question look even more tense. Then, of course, there was the ever-present sigh that echoed around the old Centre Court when another break point went begging or a forehand flapped lamely into the tramlines.
Even when Murray began to show us what he was made of, reaching regular quarter-finals, then semi-finals and then, jot of joys, the final last summer, the response was confused. Are we really supposed to enjoy this? If we think he can win, do we show it? And then the Olympics rolled into SW19, a new crowd filled the stadium and the nervous etiquette of the past was thrown away. Muzz was a Brit, we wanted him to win and we were not afraid to say so. Gradually, that same attitude is creeping into the regular Wimbledon crowd and now they cheer, they chant the Muzz’s name and they applaud when he is winning and they roar him on when he is trouble.
So; to the match. This is not easy to describe as most of it was watched with hands over the eyes and from behind the chair; it was not easy viewing for those of a nervous disposition.
The first set was nip-and-tuck with both men playing well enough but with the Muzz feeling his hip (a sure sign that his dodgy back was playing up). Serious Murray watchers bit their lips and by the end of the second set, were imagining their boy one, stumbling step away from intensive care and a month in traction.
The second set was torment. Murray got the early break, relaxed all-too-briefly in order to play well for a couple of games and then, in the twinkling of an eye, lost his lead and, shortly after, lost the set. Verdasco was leathering his serve, he was even welting his second serve, and he was firing that famous forehand, the pile driver that Brad Gilbert calls the “fear-hand”, with abandon. Murray, meanwhile, was running around 10 feet behind the baseline, chasing after shadows.
Only in the third set did Murray attack – that would the only set he won with ease – but by the fourth, he was on the defensive again. As for the fifth set – a nation held its breath for fully 47 minutes exhaling only when the world No.2 sealed the last point. He ran and chased and scrapped for every ball – maybe proving to himself that his bad back is up to this challenge and that he still has the wheels for two more rounds – until that gust of air almost took the very expensive roof off the Centre Court.
Even then, Verdasco challenged the last line call but as he smiled and joked with Muzza at the net, he knew and we knew that it was a forlorn hope. When Hawk-Eye confirmed that the local hero was, indeed, safely through to the semi-finals, a grateful nation collapsed in a crumpled heap.
In the Royal Box, Sir Alex Ferguson – one of Scotland’s two most famous knights – was gradually going purple. He has a ruddy complexion at the best of times but forced to keep his emotions in check as he sat behind the Duke of Kent, he was going redder and redder. Anyone who watched him patrol the technical area at Old Trafford in the days when he was managing Manchester United would know that Fergie is not good at holding everything in. Bets would have been taken on whether he would actually explode had it not been for the Tennis Integrity Unit spoiling the fun.
One bet worth making would have been on Verdasco’s hair – it simply does not move and is almost Thatcherite in its rigidity. You could get good odds on whether any player on any surface could trouble his parting or ruffle his quiff. Or maybe that is the key to beating him: if you can get his fringe to flop, you are half way to victory.
But as Fergie relaxed, Verdasco headed for the airport and the Muzz lived to fight another day, the 60 million British souls who clutter up this little island could sleep easy. Their boy was safe for the next day at least.
But on Friday, Murray may put us through the mangle again as he faces the massive 6ft 8ins Jerzy Janowicz. The huge Pole walloped 30 aces as he cruised past his friend and countryman, Lukasz Kubot 7-5, 6-4, 6-4. When he is on his game, Janowicz is all but unbeatable but playing a good mate for the chance to be in his first grand slam semi-final was still an emotional nightmare. No matter, he managed to find the control, the composure and the firepower to get the job done in double quick time but once the last point was done, he was a gibbering wreck.
Kubot, decent soul that he is, hugged his pal as the big man sobbed on his shoulder. They swapped shirts, like football players, and they walked off hand in hand. For three sets, it had been a war out there but, in the end, Poland had won so both men were happy.
“It’s not easy to control all of the feelings inside my body,” big Jerzy said. “If you are going through quarterfinal and you are in semi of that kind of tournament is not easy to control emotions, so I was really happy after the win today. Simply I was crying.”
Kubot, a little older and a little more experienced, saw immediately how the victory had affected his friend and wanted to help.
“I said, Let’s go,” Kubot explained. “Let’s exchange [shirts]. Let’s make our tennis more famous, more popular, and show that Poland tennis is in the map of tennis. Because this never happen before, and that’s it.
“I think it just shows how important is the fair play and shows the friendship on the court. We’re just fighting, you know, with every point, but when match is finished we are friends. We are just showing that this is only sport.”
It may only be sport but come Friday Andy Murray and his 15,000 close friends and supporters on Centre Court, not to mention a nervous nation watching at home, will be taking it to heart. And if Andy puts us through another five-set thriller, our hearts may not be able to take the strain.