As the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere approaches, the sight of green tennis surfaces on television to accompany warmer weather feels like the most natural thing in the world. In recent memory, early British summer after early British summer has been synonymous with a nation's yearning for something special to occur in a corner of southwest London. Where many before have failed, Andy Murray will carry the crushing burden of hope and expectation in a little under a week's time at the All England Tennis Club in Wimbledon.
When the winner of Roland Garros holds aloft the Coupe des Mousquetaires in Paris and clay is left behind, the hardcore British tennis fan suddenly finds that they are joined by countless other casual observers in willing on the home favourite as the giant that is the nation's tennis interest awakes from its eleven month slumber. While the tennisaholic finds the change from clay to grass visually jarring at first, the innumerable casuals may well find it natural, having probably not followed the season through the early steamy Australasian swing, the wintry indoor European circuit, the American Masters bonanza and the springtime clay overload. This sudden peak in the number of enthusiasts may be glaringly conspicuous to the knowledgeable followers, but is most likely a symptom of the media's persistence in otherwise confining tennis to the inside pages. The instantaneous and intense scrutiny that lands on any half-decent player from these shores around this time needs to be coped with admirably for there to be any real chance of success. Thankfully, it appears that Andy Murray, while possessing more tennis talent than any of his recent predecessors, also has his own feelings under control.
As he hoisted the winner's trophy on the pristine lawn of Queen's Club's centre court on Sunday, Murray's tournament victory was a hard one to put in perspective. Certain sections of the media needed no encouragement to unleash the hype, least of all the host TV broadcaster, for whom Sue Barker infuriated this writer with her violent lurches from emotional containment to the verge of hysteria. Murray's various detractors around the Internet dismissed his 12th career title as meaningless, pointing to the fact that his winning run featured no player in the world's top 15 and the relatively minor standing of the tournament. While the latter group certainly has valid statistical points to make, it would take a real curmudgeon to deny that there are true reasons for optimism in the days leading up to the start of the action in SW19.
After the relative disappointment of a quarter final exit at Roland Garros to Fernando Gonzalez (when Murray was outplayed and blitzed virtually throughout the contest), the Scot rebounded brilliantly. No matter the standing of the tournament in the context of the wider world tour, he could not have done much more to achieve perfection in winning at Queen's. Broken only twice in five rounds, he radiated total composure and authority from start to finish. After the long, gruelling clay season, when his fans longed for the eventual return to more comfortable surfaces, Murray was back to bossing opponents all over the court. His groundstrokes were simply too hot to handle, even for the experienced James Blake, who simply could not live with Murray's probing examination and bewitching shot selection. As far as tuneups go before a major event, Murray will now feel at one with the grass beneath his feet - his confidence is high, his game engine is purring nicely.
Roger Federer's ultimate victory at Roland Garros, while surely liberating for the Swiss, has in turn raised questions. Now that the burden of equalling Pete Sampras' Slam record has been achieved, will he be able to summon that desire again to compete for the biggest prizes? Did the victory mask cracks in his game that were apparent in titanic battles in earlier rounds? Will his impending fatherhood cause a shift in his life's priorities? Although these questions are difficult to answer comprehensively, one thing is for sure - the man is
vulnerable and Murray should have great belief that he can beat Federer, in either a semi-final or final.
Rafael Nadal's shock defeat to Robin Soderling at Roland Garros was soon followed by news of injury concerns and a possible absence from Wimbledon. Should the usually invincible Majorcan take to the grass courts next Monday, he will do so with very bad preparation indeed. Should his body hold out to carry him to a semi-final or final, Murray should again believe in victory.
The most tragic hidden aspect of the great expectation and hope that engulfs Britain whenever Wimbledon approaches is that it is always tinged with a lack of belief. Tim Henman gave his all to reach that elusive final, falling four times in the semi-finals, but the question always asked - 'can you imagine what it would be like to see a Brit in a Wimbledon final?' - exists because that lack of belief exists. There is always the hope that the unthinkable will be achieved, but always with it the nagging doubt that such a thing could ever happen. The last time a Briton was victorious in the year's third Grand Slam, Adolf Hitler was viewed as someone to keep an eye on. The amount of time, constantly adding up since then, only serves to crush any belief further into the ground.
In Andy Murray, however, Britain has someone that it can truly believe in. Since his remarkable turnaround against Richard Gasquet in the fourth round of Wimbledon almost a year ago, on a sultry night when a switch seemed to flick on at the last possible moment, turning despair into ecstasy and shocking Murray into an unwaveringly upward trajectory, Britain has seen the arrival of a true winner. Since that night, he has beaten the best in the world, on numerous occasions and on some of the biggest of tennis' stages. While expectation may, if he allows it, serve to hinder Murray in repeating those feats at Wimbledon, he can instead turn it to his advantage. He can use it to fuel further the passion that already burns inside him. He should realise that winning tennis matches against the best is something that comes naturally to him. The difference here is that he has the support to spur him on to even greater heights.
Seven matches. That's all that stands between Murray and eternal greatness. He can