Commentary

England has caught Andy Murray fever

Originally Published: July 1, 2009
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- As much as Great Britain aches for a champion here, the gradual ascension of Andy Murray has produced a not-so-United Kingdom.

He was tough to love, petulant -- at times, a snarling brat. And he was Scottish. Some folks in England held that against him, and sometimes he returned the favor. In 2007, when Murray pumped his fists at Wimbledon, he waved the Scottish colors (in the form of blue-and-white wristbands) in the face of the very British crowd.

But now, at age 22, Murray has arrived on the threshold of greatness. He wasn't born in Oxford, England, like the British tabloids fondly call our brave Tim Henman, but the native of Dunblane, Scotland, is into the semifinals here for the first time. Henman reached the penultimate round four times, most recently in 2002, but he never played in a final.

Murray, with a 7-5, 6-3, 6-2 victory over Juan Carlos Ferrero on Wednesday, locked down the highly anticipated showdown with Andy Roddick. The American defeated Lleyton Hewitt 6-3, 6-7 (10), 7-6 (1), 4-6, 6-4.

Friday's semfinal will feature Roddick's serve, one of the game's most lethal weapons, against Murray's return, considered by most players one of the best in tennis.

Through five matches here, it is clear that the once-awkward relationship between Murray and England is moving into the state of a more comfortable mutual understanding.

Neil Harman, the esteemed tennis writer for the Times of London, is compelled to write about Murray here on an almost-daily basis.

"In the past, I think there was that reaction: 'Oh, bloody hell, we don't want that scruffy urchin to represent us,'" Harman observed. "Now it's turned completely.

"I think whatever demons he's had in his past are gone. Those who come to the courts see him as a fantastic British tennis player. They don't see an identity crisis, they don't see that scruffy urchin, they just see someone who's an amazing athlete, a wonderful tennis player."

All of England seems to have caught the fever. When Murray beat Stanislas Wawrinka in the fourth round Monday night under the roof of Centre Court, it was the loudest crowd Murray had ever experienced. More than 12 million Brits watched the match on television after the ludicrously popular "EastEnders" was pushed off to BBC Two.

Wedding proposals come whistling out of the crowd almost every time he plays a match. Queen Elizabeth II sent him a letter at the All England Club wishing him luck. Sean Connery, Agent 007 himself, weighed in as well.

"He called to say 'Well done,'" Murray said. "It was much nicer than someone trying to sell you a phone upgrade."

On Wednesday, Murray received a handwritten note from Sir Cliff Richard, a pop icon here, and actress Kate Winslet and Miss Scotland, a former Dunblane classmate names Katharine Brown, were courtside for his match with Ferrero.

There was much concern over Murray's physical status after the 3-hour, 57-minute match with Wawrinka. The match ended after 10:30 p.m., the longest night in the history of the venue. But he showed no signs of fatigue against Ferrero.

The lean Scot served well -- and returned even better. Murray had 18 aces, to only three for Ferrero, and was broken only once. At the same time, he feasted on Ferrero's second serve, winning 16 of 26 points.

[+] EnlargeAndy Murray
of the 2009 Wimbledon Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis Club. Mandatory Credit: Steve Bardens/Offside Sports/US PresswireAndy Murray became the third Brit in the Open era to reach the Wimbledon semifinals.

"It's just a complete performance for me," said Henman, now a BBC broadcaster. "I do sort of fancy his chances [of winning] going forward."

A few days ago, Harman saw something that struck him. When Murray met with a BBC crew to do an interview on the grass of the players' lounge, he shook the hands of each crew member -- the soundman, the producer with the clipboard and the cameraman, as well as the interviewer.

"And then," Harman said, "he did it again at the end, 'Thanks so much. Thanks for doing this.' Those kind of things go to changing the perceptions, if indeed perceptions have to be changed."

Murray has been steadily, upwardly mobile since 2005, when he rose an astonishing 449 ranking spots in one year, all the way to No. 65 as an 18-year-old. He reached the third round here that year, then the fourth in 2006. After missing the next year with a wrist injury, he advanced to the quarterfinals last year before losing to eventual champion Rafael Nadal. He beat Nadal, then the No. 1-ranked player, in the semifinals of the U.S. Open before losing to Federer in the final.

Since Nadal withdrew from this tournament, there has been an expectation in Great Britain of a Murray-Federer final that borders on madness.

There is a general consensus in the sporting press of London that a Murray win in the final would constitute the greatest British sporting victory since 1966. That was the first (and only) time England won the World Cup with a sparkling 4-2 victory over Germany. Murray is only the third British man to reach the semifinals here in the Open era, following Henman and Roger Taylor. He is hoping to become the first British man to win here since Fred Perry triumphed in 1936.

"I'm better equipped to win a Grand Slam this year than I was last year," Murray said. "I think I have a chance of winning, but I understand how difficult it is to do.

"It doesn't make any difference the way you perform, the hype. If you ignore it, you don't realize it's happening. I don't read it because 90 percent of the stuff's going to be pretty much untrue anyway."

What would a win mean to England?

"I'm sure it would be huge, huge news for quite a few weeks," Murray said. "People have been waiting for it for -- well, forever."

Wrote Matthew Syed of the Times: "Our lingering sense of national inferiority would explode in an instant of euphoria. I know the boy is Scottish, but a few more evenings such as Monday and even Middle England will embrace him as one of its own."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.