The Big Fourtnight

United We Sit

Wednesday, July 03, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

HENMAN HILL, Wimbledon—There is some debate as to whether the grass of the All England Club that is trampled by patrons should be referred to as “Henman Hill” or “Murray Mound”, but to me the issue is settled at the start of Andy Murray’s quarterfinal match with Fernando Verdasco. Stewards inform those looking for a spot to sit on the “hill”—and I quote—which is teeming with ticketholders long before today’s main event, to walk to the right. For a town that doesn’t have many one-way streets, this is a bold statement.

I walk right, then up a stairway surrounded by more stewards, standing sentry to ensure a steady flow of foot traffic. There’s not a spot of sod vacant, aside from narrow pathways that people use to traverse the hill. People have even set up shop behind these paths, so in essence they will be watching legs and bodies instead of tennis. The British love their queues, but this takes it to another level.

I’m back where I started soon enough, so I find a small clearing to stand and watch the beginning of the match. “It’s like watching football, in the good old days,” a man says with a smile. He, along with most of the crowd, is sipping a Pimm’s, the alcoholic drink of choice at Wimbledon. The refreshing beverage, which carries a citrusy taste, is sold in a tent on the hill, and there’s an added bonus for those who purchase one: You can access additional pathways just outside the tent. So for that reason alone I buy a Pimm’s, and a few minutes later I find an open space on the hill. “Is anyone sitting here?,” I ask a woman. “No, but don’t put your head in me or I’ll chop it off,” she pleasantly tells me.

Watching the giant television from a distance, I nonetheless see Murray’s early problems with clarity. He’s playing too defensively, letting Verdasco, who relishes the opportunity to hit out, move him around in too many points. Murray’s defense, some of the best in the sport, is admirable, and he fights back from 0-30 when serving at 3-4. The Scot’s racquet is then taken out of his hands when Verdasco, after double-faulting to surrender a break point, precisely places a wide serve in a moment of foreshadowing. He follows that with a wide forehand to Murray’s backhand, a pattern both Verdasco and Rafael Nadal—the Spanish lefty many thought would be facing the No. 2 seed in the later rounds of this tournament—execute well.

Verdasco is at his arresting, aggressive best when leading 5-4, and an inside-out forehand winner gives him a set point at 30-40. “Not on a double-fault, don’t even do it,” a Murray fan mutters, seemingly knowing what’s to come. When Murray throws in the set-ending error, a groan lifts from the many fans, but some individuals hardly notice. They are busy popping champagne corks, talking to their sweethearts, or resting on this overcast but comfortable day in SW19.

When Murray earns a break point in Verdasco’s first service game of the second set, the same fan, seemingly knowing that a tense rally is in the offing, hopes for a “Double-fault. Go on, do it!” Verdasco keeps his second serve in, but it’s Murray who wins the baseline exchange and goes on to lead 3-1. It seems that Verdasco, currently outside the Top 50 but a former No. 7, has let his chance at the latest major Wimbledon upset escape him.

But on this day, Murray is not the confident and consistent player we’ve seen through the first four rounds. He’s making uncharacteristic errors that elicit “No!”’s from his supporters gathered on the hill. When he’s broken for the second straight service game to fall behind 4-3, one of them realizes the precarious position he’s in. “Oh my gosh,” she says quietly.

“He breaks him again, does he?,” a fellow unconcerned by the match asks his friend.

Murray has one final chance to make something of this set—well, actually, three. He gets to 0-40 on Verdasco’s serve, but the 29-year-old saves each break point. Murray, in a moment of weakness, hits a feeble drop shot into the net, after which Verdasco sews up the set and his fifth consecutive game. The hill is silent.

“This is actually becoming painful,” one woman says as the third set begins and Murray puts a volley into net. I get up from my seat, looking for a closer vantage point, and someone takes my spot instantly.

Apparently my relocation inspires Murray, for he goes on to win six of the next seven games. At 5-1, Murray has clawed back to level terms with Verdasco in total points won—78 apiece. His powerful service return returns as Verdasco wins just one of 10 second-serve points in a speedy, 31-minute set. But he’s still trailing by a set, even as a loud roar emanates from the hill for the first time all day.

Standing outside the Pimm’s tent on a patch of grass just large enough to contain my shoes, I watch on the sun-drenched TV as a guard offers members of the Royal Box hats to block out the brightness. No one takes a hat, but the gesture isn’t lost on the attendants as they thank the gentleman kindly. This is in sharp contrast to an all-too-frequent exchange taking place behind me, as curious onlookers stand on the pavement. That isn’t allowed, and there are a few confrontations between the overwhelmed stewards and those hoping to view the match. The latter get kicked out, but other unknowing spectators return seconds later. “You should come early, get space,” a frustrated steward finally says.

After three unspectacular sets, we’re finally treated to some top-level tennis in the fourth. We get it at a critical moment, with Verdasco up 1-0 and Murray already having saved two break points in the game, both largely with his serve. But Murray takes to the ground to secure the hold—quite literally, falling after curling a running forehand to Verdasco’s right. Trying to reach the ball by any means, Verdasco dives—and double-hits the ball, which lands over the net. The hill isn’t sure what’s happened for a moment, until Murray rises from the turf and the score displays 1-1.

Below, a curt chap says something a baby shouldn’t hear—and there’s one nearby, so the chap’s girlfriend covers his mouth with her hand. It’s a rare example of hill folk ignoring the tennis; at this point, the crowd is locked in.

And, at this point, the crowd from No. 1 Court empties onto the foot of the hill, with Jerzy Janowicz having beaten countryman Lukasz Kubot. He’ll play the winner of this match in the semifinals. People are everywhere; if there was a Henman Hill and a Murray Mound, both would be filled to capacity. But that just makes the cheers more intense when Murray, for the third and fourth time this set, saves a break point with an unreturned serve. Murray holds for 3-3, and the biggest cheer of the day comes when he gets his first 0-30 lead of the set, thanks to a shanked Verdasco forehand.

Verdasco, as he does throughout the day, is brave with his second serve, eliminating a possible triple-break-point opportunity. He then strikes two winners for 40-30 when Murray cedes too much court space. But Verdasco is left to rue the four break point chances he hardly had a chance at when, two points later, Murray converts his only break point of the set. The crowd, now hanging on every point, is building to a crescendo for the upcoming decider.

The fans on the hill are nervous when points are played in the fifth set, but when the points are over with, anything is fair game. Two sauced twenty-somethings try in vain to start the wave. An “Olé, olé olé olé” chant rises from the seated masses. A man stands near the center of the hill and implores everyone around him to shout, “Murray! Murray!” Aside from the wave, it’s a very unified group. At 3-3, the stewards have given up in trying to remove people from standing in the walks.

What follows are two tense service games. With Murray testing Verdasco’s weaker backhand side, the crowd favorite takes a 15-30 lead, massive at this stage of the match. But with a look at a second serve and the finish line coming into focus, Murray watches as Verdasco slams a gutsy ace before holding.

Murray answers by winning four straight points from 0-30 down on his serve, rediscovering his consistency just in time. Before Murray wins the game, there’s a brief instance of complete silence on the grounds, something I can’t help but notice after so much sonic wallpaper. When Murray holds, that still is lifted, and it feels like, once again, that Verdasco has let his chance elude him.

Queues of fans now border every edge of the hill, and an overflow of watchers sit cross-legged on the concrete underneath the mound. There are screams of “C’mon Andy”, but also “C’mon, attack!”, as Murray never truly breaks free from a largely defensive gameplan. Though he’s been more assertive in the latter stages of the match, the points more often than not end on Verdasco’s racquet. But an inescapable fact remains about Verdasco, the away team today, which a father tells his daughter: “That man’s playing against Murray and the entire country.”

The entire hill cheers resoundingly when Murray takes off the training wheels and fires a forehand that Verdasco can’t keep in. It’s 5-5, 15-30, Verdasco serving. Two points later, I hear the new biggest cheer of the day. It comes after a point that is quintessentially Murray: We see a flat backhand, a topspin backhand, a slice backhand; defense, counterpunching, and versatility. And there is a collective catharsis when Verdasco puts the ball in the net. When Murray wins the next point to break for 6-5, the hill gives him a standing ovation, united in its approval.

On triple match point, Murray hits a first serve out. I’m quite possibly the only person who doesn’t let out, “Aww!” Murray completes his comeback when a Verdasco forehand lands inches long. Picnicking neighbors in front of me who haven’t said a word to another all day give each other high fives and a quick hug. One is even wearing a Switzerland cap. The debate over the name of what is officially called Aorangi Terrace will continue after Murray’s 4-6, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-5 win, and will only intensify if he becomes the first British man to win Wimbledon in over 75 years.

As I leave the hill, a happy man and a female steward congratulate each other on the result. “Henman Hill,” the man says admiringly. “It’s Murray Mound, thank you very much,” the lady replies. “It’ll change.”

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