by Pete Bodo
WIMBLEDON, England—The ace was just one in a barrage that had been growing more intense as the match went on, but this was the final one, at match point, and even without the acoustic enhancement provided when the roof of Centre Court is closed, you could the hear it come off Andy Murray's racquet with the crack of a shot from a high-powered rifle.
By the time the ball whistled past David Ferrer, who didn't even have the time to wave at it, the winner's arms were flung high in the air in triumph—and so were those of thousands of his fans in the stadium, in such a seemingly synchronized moment that it might have been orchestrated.
It was a vivid testament to the extent to which the British crowd, on Centre Court, on Henman Hill, in living rooms all across the UK, are as of one with Murray. They have yoked their fortunes to his, at least for the span of this fortnight. They live with him and die with him. If you are a British tennis fan you trust Murray with your heart, and the thing about Murray is, what he's most inclined to do with it is juggle, which he certainly did throughout his 6-7 (5), 7-6 (6), 6-4, 7-6 (4) quarterfinal victory.
It can be tough to be an Andy Murray fan. He doesn't have a blond braid flopping around between his shoulder blades, nor does he shriek like a woman giving birth when he hits the ball. But given his unique role at this tournament, he ranks as the best drama queen of them all. Forget the way he clutches at his back, berates himself bitterly and often, or rises from a slip or inconsequential fall as slowly as a man who's been gut shot. Even those ankle braces he wears suggest infirmity, and increasingly the bald spot growing on the back of his head does too. It's as if Murray wants you to think that just his presence, and going on doing what he does, is a minor miracle.
There's a bit of the martyr in Murray, and it ultimately influences his game in a way that his team of coaches and fans might judge unhealthy. His talent can make even difficult victories appear routine, but the downside is that he seems to have a comparable appetite for making puzzling defeats and patches of terrible, negative tennis seem pre-ordained—it probably all ties in with this common, self-sabotaging British sense of fundamental unworthiness. Come on, Andy, we know you're going to blow it. You do too. Play out the role.
For a long time today it looked as if that's just what Murray was aiming to do. With the wrong Spaniard across the net (how much easier it would have been to square off against Rafael Nadal and take a straight sets licking) and a slot in the semifinals at stake, Murray was poised to deliver a fresh if secretly-expected and perhaps masochistically-relished disappointment, made ever so slightly palatable (no use alienating anyone, right?) by the fact that Ferrer is probably playing the best tennis of his life, and has more than amply displayed his bona fides in a nine-match winning streak leading up to this day.
The set-up was perfect, and it all went according to script when Murray was broken and Ferrer served for the first set at 5-3. Baffled Murray fans could only shake their heads at the way their hero seemed content to rally with Ferrer, and engage in cat-and-mouse rally games that played right into the No. 7-seed's hands. Going in, Murray needed to avoid getting jerked all over the court by Ferrer, but without overly forcing the action and going for too much, too soon, with his own shots. It was a delicate balance for sure, and it looked like Murray had forgotten the mandate. Nothing drives Murray watchers quite as crazy as those times when he almost perversely chooses to play the other guy's game, only worse. At those times, he's truly the man with no game.
But ho, this is Murray we're talking about, and he found a way to break back. Then he lost the ensuing tiebreaker despite earning back a mini-break that enabled him to level for a brief and shining moment at 5-all. He served and then drove a backhand into the net on the next point, after which Ferrer closed him out with a cross-court backhand that forced an error. It was vintage stuff—Ilie Nastase at his hysterical best could not have done better.
In the second set, Murray showed signs of resurgence, but he was broken for 5-4. Dramatic enough for you? Adequately heartbreaking? Not yet, Murray seemed to say.
Ferrer, who has so often come to the brink of a big breakthrough only to subtly but surely back off, played a terrible game after winning the first point. Down 15-40, he was broken when he made a forehand error during the ensuing rally. Soon they were in another tiebreaker. Murray kicked things off by trying a silly—and risky—drop shot, and a forehand pass gave Ferrer the mini-break. The next eight points went on serve; Ferrer had the set on his racquet when he took the balls with two serves to come at 5-4.
And that's when Murray's sense of high drama kicked in. He belted a big forehand winner to level, then fell behind set point by virtue of a Ferrer service winner. But Murray stepped up with a spectacular, forehand approach winner and followed with a service winner of his own to reach set point. He clinched it when he rallied Ferrer out of position and forced him into a backhand error. Good thing the roof was open; it would have blown off, given the way the crowd reacted.
"I think the key was in the second set, no?" Ferrer said afterward. "When I have 5-4, or one set point. But Andy, in important moments, he play really good. He played more aggressive than me, and he was better. If I win two sets up, anyway is still difficult to beat Andy because he is playing very good."
Winning that second set seemed to free up Murray's arm as well as his spirit and confidence. He began to find his range; where earlier in the match he had so often exchanged tepid groundstrokes in rallies, or played with no discernible purpose, he suddenly began firing bullets, cracking serves, and pushing Ferrer back off the baseline. The process was gradual, for Murray had been doing a lot of dithering. But when it was complete, the new version of the Scot was eye-opening. And it suddenly became clear that in the first two sets he was fighting the greatest opponent of them all—himself. He had been tight, albeit in a quiet way. After he won the second set, it was as if a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders.
Murray made the crucial breakthrough in the third set from deuce in the ninth game, thanks to a forehand service return winner and a crisp backhand cross-court service return that Ferrer couldn't handle. Leading 5-4, Murray served out four straight points, ending with two service winners—and his first set-ending ace of this day.
"I could have done a little bit better probably in the third set. I knew how important it was to get off to a good start there. I had a couple chances early and didn't get it. I was a little frustrated with that. But I think I did a good job at the end of the set."
Murray was superb in the fourth set, but there was one more dramatic turn in store, a rain delay of 25 minutes at 5-all. But when the men returned, the No. 4 seed picked up right where he'd left off, playing positive, aggressive tennis. The two regular games of the set went quickly, and Murray declared his intentions in the tiebreaker with a down-the-line backhand blast that generated a mini-break from the first point. Although Ferrer broke back and eventually took a 3-2 lead, Murray responded with back-to-back aces and a backhand approach that forced an error—and a mini-break for 5-3. Ferrer held the next point, but a running, down-the-line forehand winner carried Murray to match point, and he put it away with another ace.
This win had the look of a game-changer for Murray at Wimbledon. In against an opponent who had nothing to lose and with a long history of British born—and borne—frustration, Murray came awake just in time to make things brighter, if less heart-wrenching, than at Wimbledon's past. As a result, British hopes for a male champion at this very British tournament for the first time in three-quarters of a century live on.