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Monday, June 21, 2010
Murray's mountain to climb

By Kamakshi Tandon
Special to ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- Andy Murray's quest to win Wimbledon will kick off on Tuesday with much less "Pandymonium" than usual.

The annual phenomenon, which replaced "Henmania" when Tim Henman retired and Murray came to the fore as a title threat, has been dampened by Murray's recent slump and overshadowed by the World Cup.

"Maybe this week's been a little quieter than last year," Murray told reporters on the eve of Wimbledon. "But I'm sure that once the tournament begins, it will pick up a lot."

He has become used to being the country's lone flag carrier in the late stages of the tournament, but the national gaze will shift solely to Murray even earlier this year. Britain's Lawn Tennis Association has cracked down on the free passes that used to put at least a half-dozen British players into the draw at Wimbledon, requiring them to be ranked in the top 250 and toeing the line before getting the nod.

As a result, only two British men are taking part in Wimbledon 2010 -- Murray and Jamie Baker, the lone national recipient of a singles wild card this year. And Baker, like Murray, is Scottish, which means that for the first time, there are no Englishmen in the field at Wimbledon. Blimey!

So the pressure is on Murray to keep up home pride, especially if the British women also go down early. There is also some personal pressure, because at 23, he's near the age at which he's long said his game should be reaching its best.

Yet Murray has struggled ever since losing the Australian Open final to Roger Federer in January, and he looked cranky and out of sorts in early losses at the French Open and the grass-court warm-up at Queen's this past month.

At Wimbledon, Murray has a relatively straightforward draw until reaching a possible semifinal against Rafael Nadal. A potential fourth-round meeting against Queen's champ Sam Querrey looks like the biggest challenge in the early going.

Murray believes that he can find his form once the fortnight begins. "Last year was the first year I had a legitimate chance of winning the tournament, so it was good to have had that experience," he said. "Now, that's where I feel like I'm at, you know, trying to win the tournament.

Andy Murray
Will Andy Murray placate the people of England with a Wimbledon win this year?

"I became a better player. Got stronger, started serving harder, and more often I was hitting the ball harder more consistently, was playing better up at the net. That's something that, after the Australian Open, I got away from a little bit, something that I'll look to do better.

"I'll be very focused for my first match. If I play well, then I've got a chance to do well here."

The nation is more wary after all those years of investing its hopes in Henman, culminating in the realization that it had been a bit of a stretch to expect him to actually win the title. He reached the semifinals four times and had a real shot at the title in 2001 but struggled to find a way past the biggest guns.

There seems to be a fear that Murray might turn out to be another Henman, good enough to be an outside threat but not quite genuine champion material. Last year's defeat to Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon semifinals only solidified the concern.

But even if Murray is currently slumping, it's a misguided belief. Henman himself would be willing to admit that Murray already has shown he belongs in a different class -- he's not a player who will win a Grand Slam if he's lucky, but one who would be unlucky not to win one. Murray's best chance is actually not on the grass at the All England Club but instead on his favored hard court at the U.S. Open or Australian Open.

Most of the public watches the sport only during the Wimbledon fortnight, so making a judgment about the Grand Slam potential of Murray's game is no easy task -- especially because TV does not do him full justice. Handy Andy nudges the ball around with different speeds, spins and placements in ways best seen in person.

How to display Murray's "mad skillz" in a way everybody can appreciate? Just before the tournament, Murray's racket company released a commercial showing him doing some "street tennis" tricks, including hitting the ball into a drainpipe and knocking tin cans off a wall with the serve:

It's not easy to tell where reality ends and skillful editing begins -- Murray himself said there were "about 100 takes" involved. But the sequence of Murray cracking forehands at plates flying in the air is filmed as a single scene, and the exultation on his face afterward is unmistakable.

He doesn't always need a racket, either. This impromptu gem, filmed by someone in Murray's camp, shows Murray doing a version of the soccer drill "keepy-uppy" -- but with a tennis ball instead of a larger soccer ball:

If this Wimbledon thing doesn't work out, maybe there's a spot for Murray on the World Cup squad instead. If only the Scot hadn't joked during the last World Cup that he was rooting for "anyone but England."

That regretted remark is still brought up from time to time, reflecting the ambivalence with which some of middle England still regards Murray. "Surly," "sour" and "dour" are adjectives frequently used by the media and the public. Murray was described last week as walking as though he "just realized he left his winning lottery ticket in the trousers he donated to the charity shop," and this year's inaugural Wimbledon poet wrote the following:

"If ever he's brattish,
And brutish and skittish,
He's Scottish.
But if he looks fittish,
And his form is hottish,

He's British."

It's nothing new, of course. Henman was mocked as "the human form of beige," and Greg Rusedski was British when he won, Canadian when he lost.

But although Murray has himself admitted that he has "the world's most boring speaking voice," there's a sharp mind and dry sense of humor behind the monotone.

He has become used to the double-edged sword of being the nation's tennis torchbearer. "When I was younger, it was something that got to me a little bit because you just don't know how to deal with everything," Murray said. "Now I'm fully aware there are people that don't like me and people that do like me. That's just kind of the way things work."

It's not surprising that he was quick to empathize when asked about English soccer player Wayne Rooney, who caused a furor by making a sarcastic remark to cameras when the team was booed after its game against Algeria last week.

"The one thing that I do know is that when you are in the heat of the moment, when you have just finished the match, when things haven't gone as you would have liked, you can say things you don't necessarily mean," Murray said.

England has not won a World Cup since 1966, and Britain has not had a men's Grand Slam champion since 1936, two dates engraved in the nation's sporting memories.

"It's obviously a lot of pressure on England to do well at the World Cup. It's the same with the tennis players here," said Murray, the pluralization somewhat redundant.

So far this month, the focus has been on ending the drought on the field rather than the tennis court. But if Murray's Wimbledon campaign outlasts the nation's World Cup effort, there'll be no room to spare on the Bandywagon.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.