By Giri Nathan
Each Slam, and each show court, is a chance for the home crowd to showcase their particular virtues. In sheer volume and clamor, the beery Aussies cannot be beat. At Roland-Garros, any player’s display of passion is rewarded in kind, and every five-setter takes on epic scope. The US Open…is best for entertaining corporate clients. (Its side courts are its magic.) When it comes to the Wimbledon crowd, their gift is expressing visible and audible anguish, in the subtlest of notes. When their chosen sons and daughters falter on the turf, you hear every murmur, every breath sharply taken. You see the fretful faces knotting up in the close-ups. I have the faintest memories of seeing them wring their hands for Tim Henman. But nobody, probably nobody ever, makes them feel more than Sir Andy Murray.
It’s been a strange year for Murray, whose setbacks did not end at his life-changing hip resurfacing surgery in 2019. He’s no longer feeling pain there, which is in itself a beautiful development, but then there was the positive COVID-19 test that ruled him out of this year’s Australian Open, and the groin injury that complicated his hard-court season. He chose to sit out clay entirely to prepare for the grass. This season, he’d played a Challenger (and lost in the final, to a player who produced a very entertaining vlog about the occasion) and three tour-level matches, and that’s it, before heading onto grass courts, which he hadn’t touched since 2018. Two weeks ago at Queens Club he took down Benoit Paire before losing to a title-bound Matteo Berrettini in the second round. And then he would return to the land of strawberries and cream. The Murray arriving at Wimbledon in 2021 as a wild card was not a battle-tested one, unlike the 12 other Murrays to battle here.
But do you ever really forget Centre Court after winning two titles on it? The court has been perilous terrain this year, as players who haven’t played on grass in two years slip ’n’ slide on its dewy blades over this rainy week. Pretty much everyone to set foot on the court has taken a spill at some point—some severely enough to bow out of competition entirely (Adrian Mannarino, Serena Williams). For Andy, however, the slipperiest thing has been his purchase on victory. He has chosen not to make his wins easy this week. Thus far it’s been two shots of drama for Muzza and the Centre Court faithful.
His opponent in the first round was Nikoloz Basilashvili, the No. 24 seed with big power on both wings. But Murray, much more of a grass-court connoisseur, cruised for nearly the entirety of the match to go up 6–4, 6–3, 5–0. Then came something that Murray has never before perpetrated in his tennis career: seven straight games lost to drop the third set. Murray squandered three chances to serve out the match, and swerved away from solid baseline play to flick a number of doomed drop shots. He looked more like a 20-year-old naïf flailing under pressure than a world No. 1 attending to urgent business. “That was not mentally easy going back to the locker room. I had a shower, I went to the toilet—just a number one—and then it was really disappointing that I lost the third,” he said on court after the match. Upon his return he did manage to serve well, break immediately, and steadily lock up a four-set victory. But the match remained jittery and the result far from certain until that last Basilashvili backhand died on the tape down match point to get Murray his third win at a major in the last four seasons.
Next up was world No. 151 Oscar Otte, which should have been easier going but was not, because this is Andy after all, and what would be a victory without a narrative arc for the home crowd? Otte, who takes a few jaunty bounces before uncoiling into his booming serve, played impressive all-court tennis to go up two sets to one. When the roof closed at 2–2 in the fourth, Andy Murray began to close in on another win. As pissy and self-flagellating as I have ever seen him—and this is a high bar—Murray locked in while steadily berating himself between every point, lavished all the while with 360 degrees of faith and will. He would win 6–3, 4–6, 4–6, 6–4, 6–2, and embrace Otte, who said before the match that he wept when he watched the documentary about Murray’s arduous return to tennis after hip surgery. Even opponents are on the same teary wavelength as everyone else. Because tennis was so nearly taken from him, every Murray triumph feels precious, with potential for waterworks. Is there such a thing as a neutral observer to an Andy Murray match in 2021? But the man himself did a good job of parking everyone firmly in reality after his first-round win. “Yeah, like I keep getting asked, you know, is this gonna be my last Wimbledon, last match, I dunno why I keep getting asked about it. No! I’m gonna keep playing. I want to play,” he said, before a hysterical Centre Court. “I’m enjoying it and I can still play at the highest level. I mean, he’s ranked 28 in the world and you know, I haven’t hardly played any matches and I beat him. So I’m gonna keep going.” And all of those crying, screaming Brits will be going there with you.
Above: Oh, Andy (Getty)