Andy Murray heads to Wimbledon this year with two shots at historic triumph or familiar failure.
The fourth-ranked tennis player in the world will be trying to end the U.K. drought of Grand Slam singles winners when the grasscourt tournament starts on June 25. Twenty days after the men’s champion is crowned on July 8, Murray begins his quest for Olympic gold on the same All England Club lawns as London hosts the 2012 Games. No U.K. player has won an Olympic tennis title since the sport returned to the games in 1988.
Murray, 25, has been knocked out of the Wimbledon semifinals the past three years. He told reporters at Wimbledon yesterday that the thought of one day succeeding at the All England Club keeps him going.
“I think about it a lot when I’m training, when I’m struggling in practice or when I’m finding a running session or a cardio session very tough,” Murray said, shortly after he was picked for the British Olympic team. “It’s something you think about and tell yourself to give you that extra motivation.”
Murray is the fourth favorite to win Wimbledon at 8-1 with U.K. bookmaker Ladbrokes. That means a successful $1 bet on the right-hander from Dunblane, Scotland, would bring in $8 plus the original stake. Novak Djokovic of Serbia is the 7-4 favorite to successfully defend his title with French Open winner Rafael Nadal at 2-1 and Roger Federer of Switzerland at 9-2. Murray is also the fourth favorite to win the gold medal at 6-1, with Djokovic the 2-1 Olympic top choice.
The last British man to win one of the sport’s four major titles was Fred Perry, who captured the U.S. National Championships in 1936. He also won Wimbledon that year, and his statue is one of the first things spectators see when they enter the club.
A joke that has been around almost as long as the string of title-less years says the Perry statue still has the best backhand in the U.K. Each year, thousands of spectators without a Centre Court ticket occupy Murray Mound --- previously known as Henman Hill -- the rise outside Court 1 where matches are shown on a video screen. Tim Henman made four semifinals between 1998 and 2002. A collective groan went through Murray Mound last year when a forehand winner by Nadal of Spain ended Murray’s latest attempt to reach his first final.
“Playing at Wimbledon for a Brit is the ultimate pressure situation,” Annabel Croft, a former British tennis pro and now a broadcaster, said in an interview. “You’ve grown up in a country where that is the pinnacle of the sport, so to even get to play at Wimbledon is like a dream come true. But what comes with that is this massive expectation and big pressure.”
Croft won the junior Wimbledon and Australian Open titles in 1984 at 17. She rose to No. 21 in the women’s tour rankings but never made it past the third round before retiring in 1988.
“As much as tennis players always say, ‘You put the pressure on yourself,’ which you do, it’s heartbreaking when you feel like you are letting a nation down if you don’t win,” Croft said.
Murray has lost all three major finals he’s played, the most recent at the 2011 Australian Open to Djokovic. At Wimbledon, he was beaten by Nadal the past two years and by 2003 U.S. Open champion Andy Roddick in 2009, all one step short of the final.
At the start of this year, Murray hired eight-time major champion Ivan Lendl as his coach. The Czech-born American, the Wimbledon runner-up in 1986 and 1987, had no previous coaching experience, and once said grass was for golf.
“It seems like as each event goes by, the pressure is amped up, and it seems less likely for it to happen because he’s still the same age as Djokovic, and he’s only a year younger than Nadal,” seven-time major singles champion John McEnroe, 53, said on a conference call for ESPN two days ago.
Murray started the season by winning at Brisbane and losing in the semifinals at the Australian Open to Djokovic in a five-set match. He was runner-up in Miami and Dubai, and lost in the quarterfinals of the French Open to Spain’s David Ferrer.
“Murray Mania” in Britain has been tempered this year following his near-forfeit because of a back injury at the French Open and an opening loss as defending champion in the Queen’s Club grass-court tournament in London last week.
Murray was called a “drama queen” by Britain’s most recent Wimbledon singles champion, 1977 women’s winner Virginia Wade, after his second round win in Paris. He limped around the court against Finland’s Jarkko Nieminen, holding his back, and served at half speed. Murray later said he’d had back spasms during the night and was close to quitting the match.
Tommy Haas, formerly the world’s second-ranked player, told the German broadcaster Sport1 last week that Murray sometimes exaggerates injuries, and that “people talk about it in the locker room.”
Croft said the locker room now holds more players “that actually believe that they could potentially beat” Murray.
“I think he’s really feeling the pressure at the moment,” she said. “And that’s why we saw what we saw at the French Open.”
Murray’s game is built on fitness, counterattacking and a strong service return, ideal for faster surfaces like Wimbledon. McEnroe said this will be “the real test to see if he’s going to be able to bridge this gap” with Nadal, the second seed, and Djokovic.
Murray said in April he considers an Olympic gold medal to be as important as winning Wimbledon. He has been fine-tuning his grasscourt game with Lendl this week.
“We’ve done some different things in practice than normal and, hopefully, they’ll pay off when the tournament starts,” he said two days ago at an exhibition outside London.
Murray said he’s learned to deal with the public’s expectations. His first Wimbledon appearance was a third-round exit in 2005, when he was 18, and “there was no pressure.”
“Once I started to get to 21, 22 years old, it’s been fairly challenging because the expectations rise and you are putting more pressure on yourself,” he said. “But I am probably more used to it now than I was a few years ago.”