No Walk in the Aorangi Park

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WIMBLEDON, England—It was a practice session for Andy Murray, but game time for the photographers shooting him.

A day before the No. 2 seed's quarterfinal with Fernando Verdasco, media members stood elbow-to-elbow along a rail just above practice court 15 in Aorangi Park. It was survival of the quickest: Camera lenses snaked into any open space, their operators trying to find the best position to capture the host nation’s star player. That was a task all its own, but there was still the more important matter of getting the picture that makes the morning paper. And so the instant Murray—when facing the throng—made contact with the ball, the photographers made contact with their cameras. Trigger fingers were especially necessary when he had his back to the Click! brigade—the closer proximity made for a better image, but Murray didn’t give the shutterbugs much to work with. He’s been through this routine before, and one of the only times he lifted his head and tuned around was when light raindrops fell.

This was all new to me, having never watched Murray practice at Wimbledon. It’s probably the best example I’ve seen of the scrutiny the Scot finds himself under, even if it was far away from a rabid crowd on a packed show court. This setting felt like an intense microscope, the press hanging on Murray’s every motion, sound, and reaction. It’s no wonder Murray kept quiet except for a few words to his practice partner, who placed serves exactly where he was asked to. “Anywhere,” Murray said to him at one point. The server asked something back to confirm. “Yeah, just ace me,” Murray replied.

Aside from a few other comments—“Terrible,” Murray muttered after a missed return—there wasn’t much in the way of color to this early-afternoon hit. It was tennis stripped down to its essentials, Murray doing precisely what he needed to on this off day and nothing more. An hour later, Novak Djokovic gave a similar performance on practice court 2, an extended pre-match warm-up without any of the glamour and pageantry of an actual match.

With little in the way of distraction, there was plenty of time to gaze at the shotmaking. Playing without a score, Murray began at his most aggressive, firing some impressive forehands that escaped both of his sparring mates. The shots were strong enough to do damage on slow clay—something I was reminded of when dust sprayed from an area of the court drained of green color. Then it was on to volleys, with Murray at the baseline to start. He couldn’t help but scold himself after one missed pick-up, despite making the previous 10 shots.

It was an uncommon show of emotion on a day when both Murray and Djokovic* stuck to business. Even water breaks passed in silence—a sweaty Murray had his back turned to his team; Djokovic sat fixated on Jerzy Janowicz’s practice session taking place one court over. When the world No. 1 resumed play, coach Marian Vajda resumed his impression of Murray's coach, Ivan Lendl, giving short commands to his charge's lone practice partner, hitting a ball to begin the drill, and watching the exercise unfold, stone-faced.

*With two of the Big Four gone in the tournament’s first three days, more than a few people asked me if I was going to change this blog's name. (Nope, not after Wimbledon had already begun.) Kamakshi Tandon submitted the best suggestion so far: The Two in Week Two. Can you top that? Let me know in the comments below.

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