Murray takes British tennis fans on wild ride

Updated: June 25, 2005, 5:59 PM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- When the ride had finally come to an end, when the twists and turns and ups and downs of week one at Wimbledon had finally been slammed into park, Andy Murray smiled.

He had some prize money coming his way. A little over 25,000 pounds.

"I know about the prize money," he said with a grin.

But more important than the thicker pockets was the crack of a smile. It told British tennis fans they can exhale. Their 18-year-old prodigy is going to be OK. He's going to get over the most difficult loss of his seven-match pro career. He's going to give them more reasons to laugh, more reasons to cheer and more reasons to cry in the years to come.

And that's all they can ask for. On Saturday, against a cold, damp and gray backdrop, they came by the thousands, from all over the UK, from all over the world, for a front-row seat. They had seen the stories, heard the buzz and wanted to see with their own two eyes if the kid from Scotland was for real.

They stood on benches, bricks, tables and trash cans. They climbed in trees, climbed over fountains and climbed atop each other -- doing everything they could to improve their view.

Some even slept outside, lining up on the sidewalk on a cold and rainy Friday night, bringing with them their tents, coolers and portable grills, hoping to be one of the first inside Saturday morning so they could get into the front row to watch Murray's third-round match.

On TV.

But when it was all said and done, their emotions matched the awfully Scottish summer sky.

Dreary.

The kid had nearly shocked the tennis world again, coming within two games of knocking off David Nalbandian and reaching Wimbledon's fourth round before he collapsed, blowing a two sets to love lead and losing to the 18th-ranked Argentinian in five sets, 6-7 (4-7), 1-6, 6-0, 6-4, 6-1.

"I know I can play well and compete with some of the best guys," Murray said afterwards. "But unfortunately, I'm not as strong as some of them yet, which is understandable considering I just turned 18."

Mental fatigue, physical fatigue, inexperience -- they all played a role. Murray grinded out the first set 7-6, won the second 6-1, but then collapsed in the third 6-0. He led the crucial fourth set 4-2 but then fell apart, dropping that set 6-4. From there, the outcome was inevitable.

"I knew that if I won the fourth set, everything would come to me in the fifth," Nalbandian said. "I saw that he played his last chance in the fourth. He didn't start running anymore. I knew if I kept going at my level and he falls down a little bit in the fifth, I'll win for sure."

In the first game of the fifth, Murray said his "right butt" went numb when he went reaching for a shot. From there, his mobility was limited and Nalbandian put him away, 6-1.

Afterwards, Murray said the right things. Sure he was upset, sure he was disappointed, but he didn't expect to win. He'll move on. But his body language told another story. Shoulders slumped, eyes staring down at the table before him. His answers were monotone and brief.

And his teenage exuberance was all dried up in one emotionally charged week.

"I think my life will change quite a lot after this week," Murray said. "And I think maybe it deserves to because I did very well. It's not like every player gets to the third round at their first Grand Slam and takes a former finalist to five sets."

He's right. Which is why this prim and proper, strawberries and cream of a place transformed into a soccer stadium Saturday. British sports fans stormed Henman Hill, the prime piece of real estate facing the massive jumbotron behind Court 1, renaming it Murrayfield after the famous Scottish rugby stadium.

They stood everywhere they could, cramming themselves next to one another like a bunch of nine-to-fivers squeezing into a Friday afternoon train. Any view was a good view. Some, at the top of the hill, found gaps as small as a shoebox -- above a row of pines but below a wooden overhang -- to stick their head and see just how the kid was doing.

In the 48 hours since Murray's shocking second-round win over Radek Stepanek, he had become a rock star. His photo was on the cover of every London sports section. The BBC dug up all the file footage it had on Murray, producing feature stories with everything from Murray sitting on his couch to Murray walking along the beach. When the 18-year-old woke up Friday morning, he found TV cameras waiting outside his family's rented Wimbledon house.

Even fellow Scot Sean Connery found his way to the front row for Saturday's match, almost falling out of his seat at one point after wildly waving his fists following a critical Murray point.

Forget football heroes David Beckham or Wayne Rooney. The way this kid was playing, the way the fans had fallen enough, you would have thought the Scots were already breaking ground on a statue just down the road from the Wallace Monument. During Thursday's broadcast, BBC announcers were already leaping head first into the too much pressure pool. If London gets the 2012 Olympics, they discussed, and the tennis events are held here at Wimbledon, Murray could win the gold medal at Centre Court.

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," one commentator wisely chimed in.

But it was easy to fall in love this week. Murray is talented. Scottish. A teenager. And he plays with a burning passion unlike his UK counterpart, Tim Henman. Saturday, on almost every key point from the first set to the fifth he pumped his fists, spun around and screamed for the crowd to get behind him.

"Maybe I shouldn't have done that," he said afterwards. "I lost."

When things stopped going his way, when Nalbandian took control, the cheering and yelling turned into kicking and temper-tantrums. But no matter how un-Brit like it may have been, it was real. And the fans watching on Murrayfield felt that pain. They wanted to kick the dirt too.

What happens from here is anyone's guess. Murray is still alive in the Wimbledon doubles tournament and one can only imagine the stir that's going to cause on the lesser courts. After that, there's plans to head over to the States for some hardcourt tournaments.

In the long run, maybe he'll be the second coming, the Brits very own answer to Sampras, Agassi and even Federer. Martina Navratilova wrote Saturday that she thinks Murray can reach the top 50 before the U.S. Open. Or maybe he'll fade off into the background, as golfer Matt Kuchar has since finishing 21st at the Masters and 14th in the U.S. Open as a sophomore at Georgia Tech in 1998.

No matter what happens, one thing is certain: He'll always have his first Wimbledon.

"Walking off Centre Court, knowing that I just lost a match and that the noise everybody made and the support they gave me when I walked off the court, it made me feel like I almost belonged," Murray said.

He did.

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Wayne.Drehs@espn3.com.

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