Great(er) Expectations

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Photo by Anita Aguilar

LONDON—Some people really take to Queen’s. It’s the home of the repeat champion: Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick, John McEnroe, and Boris Becker have all won it four times, and Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors, and Ivan Lendl each did it twice. That’s a pretty prestigious list of winners for a 250-level event held at a tiny club in a rainy town.

The tradition continued today in the Aegon Championships final, which featured the winners from 2011 and 2012, Andy Murray and Marin Cilic. And for a second straight day, the two of them had their patience tested by another repeat champion at Queen’s: the interminable rain delay. After surviving a five-hour downpour on Saturday, they waited for more than three hours to get started today. But once again, Murray and Cilic finished by thrilling a packed house with three sets of entertaining play in the late-afternoon sunshine—the Croat called it “great, great tennis”—before Murray won his third Aegon title in five years. That’s enough to keep any player coming back for more. 

In Murray’s case, it wasn’t just the win that was familiar; it was the way he went about it. For the second straight day, he lost the first set, wavered in the middle of the second before steadying himself, and ran away with the third. Murray has been nursing a back injury that had forced him out of the French Open and had made him a question mark for this event. After his semifinal win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Murray said that he had been “sloppy” at times after four weeks away, that he had played well only in “patches,” but that he was satisfied that he had “found ways to win.” The same could be said for his performance over the first two sets on Sunday. Murray started with a more assertive attitude and broke Cilic immediately; his forehand looked crisper than it had all week, and he saved three break points at 2-0 with two service winners and an ace that were clocked at 132-,134-, and 136-M.P.H., respectively. It was at that moment that a question—unbidden, unwanted—wormed its way into my mind: “Is Andy Murray the favorite to win Wimbledon?”

Was I getting ahead of myself? The answer seemed to come right away. Murray’s forehand, as it had at various times this week, went AWOL. Serving at 4-2, he hammered one into the bottom of the net, sent one long at deuce, and put another into the net at break point. In the next game, Murray briefly looked like he might not get to Wimbledon at all. Trying to make a turn behind the baseline, he went down with a yelp. Silence reigned at Queen’s for a scary second. But, much like the soccer players he idolizes, Murray quickly left death’s door behind and was off the turf and running again a minute or two later. After the match, he said he had been cautious for a few games, but that he felt fine.

“I made some bad mistakes when I was up in the first set,” Murray said afterward, “like I had done in quite a few of the matches this week. But I kept trying to go for it. I was trying to take chances, and I felt like I was dictating a lot of the points.”

As he had against Tsonga, Murray tightened everything up with the match on the line. From 3-3 in the second set, he held at love three times—his serve started to click right on schedule—and came up with two very good backhand returns to break at 5-6. By the third set, Murray was flying. This time it was Cilic’s turn, while he was serving at 2-1, to watch his ground strokes go AWOL. And it was Murray’s turn to take advantage. His forehand was crisp again, and his backhand was even better. Murray fired one up the line for a winner to hold for 3-1, and came up with the shot of the tournament a couple of games later, a cross-court backhand pass hit on the dead run. Even the staid old Queen’s crowd had to get up for that one. Serving for the match at 5-3, Murray was still pounding them down at 132 M.P.H.

“I created a load of chances today,” Murray said. “I think with a few more matches and a few more days’ practice, I’ll do a better job converting them and won’t have the little slip-ups I had this week.”

So let’s return to my unwanted question from back in the first set: Is Murray the favorite for Wimbledon? Queen’s is an erratic predictor of success at its big brother event: Only twice in the last decade has a player won them both in the same season, Rafael Nadal in 2008 and Lleyton Hewitt in 2002. At the same time, though, multiple Queen’s winners such as McEnroe, Hewitt, Connors, Sampras, and Becker all won the Big W at least once—one notable exception was Murray’s coach, Lendl.

As far as his form goes, Murray’s right, he has been sloppy, sloppier than he can afford to be at a Grand Slam. His forehand has deserted him, his concentration has lapsed, and, as Tsonga and Cilic proved this weekend, his second serve is still a liability. They had little trouble running around it. 

On the other hand, I don’t think Murray will have those concentration/confidence lapses at Wimbledon—if nothing else, the fortnight focuses him. His wins in the semis and the final at Queen's reminded me of the close, hard-fought, briefly nerve-wracking four-set wins that we see so often from the top seeds in the middle rounds at the Grand Slams. Murray has won his share of them at Wimbledon over the years, including two very good ones against Tsonga and David Ferrer in 2012. He had his ups and downs at Queen’s, but ups and downs are part of the deal in three-out-of-five-set matches. It’s how you recover from the downs that matters, and Murray did that well yesterday and today. 

As is the case for every player, his serve will be at the crux of the matter. In his press conference today, Cilic credited that shot with helping Murray kick-start his comeback. Cilic also said that the Scot is “in the form” that could win Wimbledon. Not that Marin is counting anyone out, of course, including himself. This was a strong, resilient week of tennis from Cilic, and we may see him in one of those tight middle-round matches with a Top 4 seed in a couple weeks' time.

My colleague Richard Evans has made Murray his favorite for Wimbledon, based on his play on grass over the last year—finalist at Wimbledon, winner at the Olympics, winner at Queen’s. That’s all true, but also not a ton to go on. And it’s not like the rest of the Big 4 are exactly lagging. Roger Federer won his first event since August on grass in Halle today, Rafael Nadal has won seven titles in nine appearances in 2013, and Novak Djokovic is still No. 1 in the world. Of these three, Nadal might be the toughest ask for Murray, at least on paper. Unlike Federer and Djokovic, he’s never beaten Rafa on Centre Court. Murray has won just one set in their three grass matches, all of which were played at Wimbledon.

What does Murray himself say about his chances? He thinks he’s in similar form to years' past. “When Wimbledon comes around,” he said today, “it’s all about how you play. It’s easy to say someone is in good form when they’re not. A week is a long time in sport; anything can happen. But I’m in a good place, and I’ll just keep working hard the next week.”

One thing is certain: After this weekend, Muzz is in with a chance, as I think they like to say here. The British press can safely begin cranking up the hope machine once again. As for today, he made a worthy king of Queen’s. After the final, Murray played an exhibition to benefit the cancer foundation that has helped his friend and doubles partner, Ross Hutchins, in his battle with the disease. That also gave Murray a chance to fulfill a long-time fantasy of his: To drill his coach, Ivan Lendl, with a ball. Muzz made his dream come true with a forehand that pegged Lendl in the back. “I hit it so clean, so clean,” an obviously overjoyed Murray said later. He celebrated as if he had just won Wimbledon. 

One dream down; another to come? Three Sundays from now, on a much larger Centre Court, could we be saying this of Andy Murray: "He celebrated like he had just nailed Ivan Lendl on the backside"?

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