Andy Murray: A nation expects
Britain's only realistic hope will have to overcome formidable opposition to land his first Grand Slam. But Andy Murray believes he can fulfil his potential, as he tells Paul Newman
The contrast could hardly have been greater. Twelve months ago Andy Murray spent the last day before Wimbledon agonising over whether to risk his injured wrist before deciding late in the afternoon to withdraw from the tournament. Yesterday the 21-year-old Scot was out on the practice courts preparing for what he hopes will be the most thrilling fortnight of his life.
"Right now I'm just excited," Murray said as he looked forward to his first match at the championships since his fourth-round defeat to Marcos Baghdatis two years ago. "I probably haven't looked forward to a tournament so much since I came on the tour. I feel like I've got a really good chance of doing well. I'm pretty relaxed, but I'm just excited to get back on the court. I think a big part of that is just because I missed last year, but there's no extra pressure or nerves."
Murray, who will open his campaign tomorrow against the veteran Frenchman Fabrice Santoro, has spent much of his time in the build-up answering questions about how he expects to cope with the weight of national expectations as the only Briton with any realistic chance of success. For the first time since 1993 the All England Club will not resound to cries of "Come on, Tim!", unless the crowds switch their attention to the TV commentary boxes, where Tim Henman will be part of the BBC's team. Henman always insisted – and his results bore this out – that the Wimbledon crowd brought the best out of him and the indications are that they will do the same for Murray. The British No 1 loves the big occasion and looks back with pride on his two previous campaigns in SW19.
On his 2005 debut as the world No 312, Murray beat Radek Stepanek, the world No 13, and lost to David Nalbandian in a five-set cliff-hanger. Two years ago, as world No 44, he humiliated Andy Roddick, finalist in the previous two years, before losing to Baghdatis, the world No 16. "Every time I've played Wimbledon the support has been awesome," he said. "The atmosphere in the Davis Cup last year in Tim's last match is one of the best that I've played in. In the past at Wimbledon I've had great support and I'm guessing this year is going to be the same."
Nevertheless, 2008 will be different. Murray is no longer a raw teenager but a 21-year-old ranked No 11 in the world who has been back on the road for 10 months since his wrist injury. He thinks his best is still to come, but the time for talking about potential will stop sooner rather than later.
In making the world's top 10 and winning five titles Murray has already achieved much. However, most recent Grand Slam champions – including the current big three of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – won their first major titles before their 22nd birthdays and Wimbledon, where so many players (unlike the Scot) struggle to cope on grass, may be Murray's best opportunity.
For all his promise the British No 1 has never gone beyond the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament. Since returning last summer he has reached the third round of the US Open, where he started his comeback from injury, lost in the first round in Australia, when he had the misfortune to be drawn against the eventual finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and at the end of his first full season on clay fell in the third round of the French Open to Nicolas Almagro, who had won more matches on the surface than any other player this year.
Provided there are no more injury scares – he has recovered from the bruised thumb that forced him to pull out of his Artois Championships quarter-final 10 days ago – there should be no serious obstacles in Murray's Wimbledon path until the fourth round, where he is seeded to meet Richard Gasquet, and the quarter-finals, where Nadal would probably lie in wait.
Murray, who says he has never gone into a Grand Slam tournament in better physical shape, knows he has room for improvement at the highest level. "I don't think reaching the fourth round of a Grand Slam is a great achievement," he said. "It's good to win a few rounds, but ultimately I want to do much better than that. I think I was starting to build up to having a big Slam before I hurt my wrist and I obviously lost some tough matches to Tsonga in Australia and Almagro at the French. I'm feeling good about my game again. In Australia I'd won in Doha, but there were still a few things that needed to get much better. Now I feel like I can do well at a Slam again and go deep into the tournament."
Last year Murray cut a forlorn figure as he tried desperately to get fit for Wimbledon. The relationship with Brad Gilbert, his coach, which was to break down later in the year, already seemed on rocky ground as the American tried to persuade his man to risk his damaged wrist. When the two men eventually parted company Murray replaced Gilbert with a wider team of coaches and fitness experts. While the jury is out in terms of the effect of the coaching changes on his game, there is no doubt that Murray is more at ease with his entourage and feels more contented and composed both on and off the court. During matches there is less cursing and self-chastisement and fewer scowls, though the Scot will never be a choirboy. "I'm just going to be myself on the court," said Murray, who will also enjoy being based at his new London flat for the first time at Wimbledon. "If my behaviour offends people I don't mean it to and I'm sorry for that, but I guess I'm not going to change now.
"In the last few months I've been much more laid back than I was, especially towards the end of last year, and I don't think I'm as expressive as I was the first time I played Wimbledon. I've seen videos of my matches then and I was jumping all over the place. I'm a little bit different to that now."
How does Murray see his on-court persona in comparison with Henman's? "He was very reserved on the court and didn't give too much away and I'm obviously completely the opposite to that. I just think that when it comes to things like this you have to be yourself and do what feels right to you. If you start trying to be someone that you're not then it's quite stressful and hard work. It's easier to do what comes naturally."
Does he believe he can win Wimbledon? "I think I can do it, but you've got to play great for seven matches and I've never done that before in a Slam. I'm not in the top three. There are three huge favourites to win it and I'm in the group behind them. It would be a huge surprise if someone other than Djokovic, Nadal or Federer won."
Had he ever thought what it would be like to win? "A couple of times, yes, though I don't think I would know how to feel about it until it happened. It would obviously be life-changing in a lot of different ways, but I'm more excited about the thought of winning Wimbledon than everything else that goes with it."
Team Murray: The men and women backing up the Scot's challenge with their experience and expertise
Became Murray's main coach after the split with Brad Gilbert at the end of last year. A former British Davis Cup player, the 33-year-old (right) reached No 172 in the world rankings before moving on to a career in coaching. Worked with the successful doubles team of Kevin Ullyett and Paul Hanley before joining Murray.
French-Canadian coach who was initially approached by Judy Murray to help Jamie, Andy's brother. Nicknamed "The Professor" because of his scientific approach, he was Canada's Davis Cup coach for 12 years and helped Sébastien Lareau and Daniel Nestor win doubles gold at the 2000 Olympics. Joined Andy's team last November.
Strength and conditioning coach who became a regular member of Team Murray last year. Helps with fitness training, injury prevention and pre-exercise preparations. Has also worked with the juniors at the LTA's academy in Loughborough.
Physical conditioner who draws up Murray's fitness programme and works closely with Matt Little. Introduced Murray to Bikram yoga, of which the Scot has become a devotee. Worked with Miles Maclagan in his playing days.
Physiotherapist, working as part of a team with Jez Green and Matt Little. Also works at the LTA's Roehampton National Tennis Centre with the other leading British players and has his own clinic in Surrey.
Became best of friends with Murray when they practised together at the Sanchez-Casal academy in Barcelona. The Venezuelan now combines tennis with university studies in Miami. Played doubles with Murray at the recent Artois Championships and occasionally helps as his hitting partner.
Another friend from Barcelona days, Mier has spent a lot of time with the Scot behind the scenes over the last year. Has blogged on Murray's website and helps as a hitting partner, but his most important role seems to be as the Scot's opponent on computer games.
Having initially worked with Octagon, one of the big management firms, Murray signed up with Apey's smaller ACE Group when he changed agents two years ago. The Chilean's company also represents, among others, the footballers Juan Sebastian Veron and Hernan Crespo.
The former editor of The Sun was taken on as a media consultant earlier this year with a view to improving Murray's public image. His other clients have included Chelsea FC and British Airways.
Murray's girlfriend is studying for an English degree and can only join him on tour occasionally. The daughter of the leading tennis coach Nigel Sears, she met Murray at the 2005 US Open.
A former Scottish champion who won 64 national titles and a LTA performance coach, Murray's mother remains a key figure in his tennis career. Two Christmases ago he sent her a Christmas card which thanked her "for always believing in me, always supporting me, always letting me make my own decisions".