Commentary

Murray carries hopes of a kingdom

U.S. Open finalist from '08 is out to erase Britain angst in Grand Slam events

Updated: September 1, 2010, 8:31 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- After beating Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in back-to-back matches to win a Toronto tournament a few weeks ago, it would not be shocking if Scotland's Andy Murray seized his opening match at the U.S. Open on Wednesday and tore off on another cart-toppling, plate-smashing run all the way to the final, same as he did before losing the championship match to Federer in 2008.

But winning it all won't be easy for Murray. For tennis players from Britain, it never is.

It's hard to convey to American sports fans the angst and pessimism that the Grand Slam runs of Murray or his immediate British predecessors like Tim Henman evoke among their countrymen, or the way Murray has inherited all of that baggage now that Henman is retired.

[+] EnlargeAndy Murray
Jaime L. Mikle/Getty ImagesWinning the U.S. Open and ending Britain's Slam skid ... yeah, you could say that is hanging over Andy Murray's head.

It's been 74 years since an Englishman won a Grand Slam tennis tournament, and for his labors a heroic statue of Fred Perry sits on the Wimbledon grounds today. It's been 33 summers since Virginia Wade became the last Brit, period, to win Wimbledon, on her 16th try. That surprise earned her an audience with the Queen.

As psychodramas go, the only thing in American sports that compares to the unique burden that Murray carries is the Chicago Cubs' 102-year failure to win the World Series.

It's as if Murray begins every Grand Slam wearing leg irons attached to Perry's ghost.

Murray knows better than to complain about all the baggage, and he insists he doesn't pay too much attention to busting the streak, either. He jokes the remedy is simple: "Just try to win one of these things."

Easier said than done.

What's made life somewhat smoother for Murray is that he's just 23 and has already hung up better Grand Slam results than Henman ever did. In addition to the making the '08 Open final, Murray lost to Federer in the final of the Australian Open this year. So he's been on the doorstep twice. He's also been to the semifinals twice at Wimbledon. He has a winning record against Nadal on hard courts, and his career head-to-head record against Federer is 6-5. Hardly anyone else in the men's game can claim both of those things.

"You never go in expecting to win [against them]" Murray says, "but I know if I play my best tennis I have a chance to beat anyone in the world."

Taken all together, it's been just enough to allow Murray to hover in a sort of blessedly neutral place among his countrymen that still falls somewhere closer to hope than contempt, and fragile optimism rather than "Told you so!" rants when he fails.

But it's no exaggeration to say it could all change on a dime.

When another British hopeful, Greg Rusedski, lost at Wimbledon in 2000 to America's Vince Spadea, the owner of a record 21-match losing streak, the London tabloid headlines were unsparing: "RUSEDSKI FALLS TO WORLD'S BIGGEST LOSER!"

A few years after that, Henman's perennial near-misses had worn out his welcome among some Brits, too. Even the staid old Times of London ran a story titled: "WHY ON EARTH DID WE EVER THINK HE COULD DO IT?"

Murray heard some fallout himself when he lost in the fourth round at Wimbledon this year. Critics said he moped too much on court, that once again he didn't play aggressively enough in a big match. He was warned he better make sure he doesn't turn into the second coming of fellow Scotsman Colin Montgomerie, who's never won a golf major.

London's large fleet of daily newspapers are full of vivid writers who excel at putting new psychic wounds like Murray's early exit into historical contexts that stretch back years. And all of it is spurred along by one of the few things the Brits actually will brag that their sportsmen are good at:

[+] EnlargeAndy Murray and Roger Federer
Don Emmert/AFP/Getty ImagesAndy Murray got an up-close look at Roger Federer's trophy after the 2008 U.S. Open final.

Losing.

As Sue Mott once put it in the Daily Telegraph, "No home-grown tennis player starts with the score at nil-nil. Psychologically, they are one down already. They play in a trench of old bones, sore defeats and diabolical performances from which it is wretchedly hard to excavate themselves."

You might enjoy, even laugh, while reading that if it wasn't happening to you.

The worst handwringing about Murray at a Grand Slam probably happened two years ago during his breakthrough U.S. Open run, when rain temporarily stopped his semifinal upset over Nadal shortly after Murray had seized a two-sets-to-none lead. The interruption evoked the painful memory of the way rain robbed Henman of a sure-looking trip to the 2001 Wimbledon final by pushing the conclusion of his semifinal match against Goran Ivanisevic to a second, and then a third day.

Ivanisevic, who went on to win the title, admitted he would have never beaten Henman without the rain break.

"Henman was playing like a god," Ivanisevic said.

But Murray is already a better player than Henman was. He seemed to hit the tour more outwardly confident, too. When asked two years ago at the U.S. Open what he thought when the top-ranked Nadal roared back to win the third set after that rain delay, Murray, still just a kid of 21, evenly said, "I thought I was playing well enough to win the match."

And he did.

When Murray looks ahead to this U.S. Open, he's again sworn he doesn't see the ghost of Fred Perry floating in front of him -- just the usual challenge of probably having to get by Nadal, Federer or both of them again. He's worked hard to become stronger, fitter and control his temper. He says this summer alone he's added seven or eight miles per hour to his second serve. He promises more aggression. And he still says: "I know if I play my best I can beat anyone, even at a Grand Slam."

For Britain, for Murray -- for everyone involved -- winning one can't happen soon enough.

As great as Fred Perry was, it's time to let the man rest in peace.

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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