BOY WONDER IS LICENSED TO THRILL

26 June 2005

Nothing like the first time. It was 4.19 on the Wimbledon clock when Andrew Murray walked on to the Centre Court turf. He looked tall, willowy and diffident complete with his drinks in what appeared to be one of his mother’s plastic bags. An astonishing, roller coaster hour and a half later he was two sets up against the world No 9 and Sean Connery in the Royal Box had been forced to take a comfort break.

Sure, the third set went completely pear-shaped with David Nalbandian running away with it 6-0, and the five sets were duly ground out with Murray in a state of defiance but near collapse. But this first time had already told us that nothing for us or for Murray could ever be the same again. In the most perfectly unscripted poetic handover imaginable he has picked up the Tim Henman mantle and given British sport a new hero to cheer and pine for in these last two weeks in June. Tim Henman has more than fulfilled a fine talent, the difference with Andrew Murray is that he and others believe that he has a great one.

As with Tim, who can now flourish under lower expectation of “one last chance for the plucky veteran”, we and Murray are going to get very close to each other. In the way of tennis, we are going to recognise his slouching “Kevin The Teenager” walk, the way he hangs his head under the white cap, the pulling at his shirt, the drop kicking away of the discarded ball, the three bounces before he serves and above all the short right hand upper cut as he leaps and shouts after a winning shot.

It took a while for that to happen yesterday, but as it did, so too came the understanding that Murray was going to sear something more than mannerisms into our consciousness. We will know him for his shots. There is the terrific 130 mph serve which closed out the opening tie break, there is an extraordinary whispered hanging backhand slice which hushes the crowd breathless, there is a brutal rifle crack of cross court forehand, and finally a disguised drop shot which somehow runs out of life in mid air.

There will be much of that up ahead of us, but in truth it was little more than hope at the start. Old 007 was there hoping to see the opening chapter in a new book called “Great Scottish Tennis Champions” and only hope had been the pre-eminent feeling as the packed crowd prepared to do their duty for the apparently inevitable defeat of Dunblane’s finest 18-year-old. “Come on Murray” they chanted.

Two Union Jacks fluttered. Up in the players’ stand Andrew’s parents sat either side of coach Mark Petchey. The knock-up went all right and then the opening game was truly deplorable.

The cheers had a “chin up” ring to them. Across to the right, three Argentines shouted loudly for Nalbandian. Murray pulled himself together and then lost it again. This first time was not going to be an easy time but one or two things were happening. He was matching Nalbandian from the base line, those whispered slices hung in the air, and the serve could be a monster.

By the time he clinched the tie break, two flags had become 12, belief was at the flood, Nalbandian’s blond pony tail was black with sweat, and great chants of “Come on Andy” had replaced the formality of the surname.

One set might be a fluke, in this second no one could doubt him. The world No 9 was being bossed around. You had to ask tennis experts if there might be something wrong with the heavily sweating Senor Nalbandian. No, all that was happening was that we had a prodigy on the loose.

There is still very much a sense of unfurnished coltishness about Murray. So there was something of the expected when Nalbandian recovered and ran away with the third set without losing a game. But the sighs were not of total despair. After living so long with the now fading Henman dream, here was a kid who could give us not just a full Henman innings but who won’t be happy if he doesn’t take this biggest prize of all.

It was with that air of satisfied resignation that we embarked on the fourth set only for Murray to come alight again, get ahead with a break and keep on battling to 4-4. Exhaustion then brought him down. The fifth set then went, but with the crowd so involved that any point at all from the shattered boy in front of us was cheered to the echo. Even in his physical extremis Murray still produced flashes of brilliance and his final act was to kick a sock away in disgust at his defeat.

The final rites came with 7.42 on the clock, three hours thirteen minutes played, the Centre Court on its feet, and 007 holding his fists aloft in crinkly moustachioed Scottish approval. We knew, and he knew, that there will now be many, many other times for us and Andrew Murray. And that we will never forget the first one.

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