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Friday, July 6, 2012
Can Murray destroy the demons?

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- History is the exhaust in Andy Murray's oxygen. Each intake of clean air is contaminated by bits of Fred Perry here, particles of Bunny Austin there. He says it doesn't bother him. Murray said he is playing for himself first, his country second and the history books third. All exist in tandem, however. The order matters only to him.

Outside Centre Court, on the rolling hill where fans have access to the grounds, the Union Jacks shot up and flew when Murray's spectacular service return vanquished a surging Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5. It sent Murray both into Sunday's Wimbledon final against Roger Federer and away, finally, from Austin, who in 1938 had been the last Brit to appear in a Wimbledon final. No one under the age of 74 could say they had seen what Murray brought them Friday.

Andy Murray
It's safe to say Andy Murray would be happy if he never heard the name Fred Perry again.

Murray will play Federer for the third time in a Grand Slam final. Federer beat Murray in straight sets in both the 2010 Australian Open and the 2008 U.S. Open. Federer will be playing for his 17th major title; Murray, his first.

"It's a great challenge, one where I'm probably not expected to win the match, but one that, if I play well, I'm capable of winning," Murray said.

"But, yeah, I mean, if you look at his record here over the past 10 years or so, yeah, it's been incredible. So, you know, the pressure that I would be feeling if it was against somebody else I guess it would be different.

"But there will be less on me on Sunday, you know, because of who he is."

With Tsonga serving 15-40, the winning ball landed cross-court into the deuce court and ended the match. Murray dropped his racket and bowled over. His box -- girlfriend, mother, coaches -- erupted, but not stoic coach Ivan Lendl. He himself had come close to this championship on seven occasions -- reaching two finals and five semifinals -- but each time was unable to capture the title. Lendl remained seated, eyes shielded by sunglasses, his head resting on his left palm.

"Well, I think, like after the match today, you try to make sure you don't get too excited on the court, never get too high, never get too down, which maybe in the past I was too up and down," Murray said. "Needed to try and be a bit more stable on the court, not be so emotional.

"I'd say that's the one thing that I've learned from kind of being around him was that, like I explained after the match today, it wasn't like it was jumping around the locker room with excitement. It was, 'There's one more match to go. Well done today, but let's focus on the next one.'"

It was an afternoon of nervous energy, increasing pressure, personal triumph and nationalism. As Murray exhaled, British Broadcast Channel television cameras zoomed close-ups on the bronze statue of Fred Perry, the next piece of history Murray is trying to conquer and who was the last Brit to win Wimbledon, back in the stone age of 1936.

When Murray said he was playing for himself, it was apparent, for throughout the afternoon he played as he has played for years, trying to prove to himself that his talents will translate into championship deeds, regardless of the competition.

Murray was the superior player, the more precise player, but also the one who had to win after the departure of Rafael Nadal in the second round. The opportunity presented would never be so great.

Murray responded by being the steadier player, and in the end, his consistency simply overcame Tsonga. Murray hit 40 winners to 12 unforced errors, while Tsonga, an electric player prone to remarkable sunbursts but unforgivable lapses against the world's best, hit 47 winners but committed 42 unforced errors.

When the moment appeared perhaps too big for him, Tsonga rose, but belatedly. Throughout the fortnight, he had delivered on his promise to challenge for the championship here. After losing a heartbreaking quarterfinal match to Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros, Tsonga had played exceptional offensive tennis. He protected his serve and used movement and a vicious forehand to control the momentum of the point on his serve.

For the first two sets against Murray, however, Tsonga played defensively and without energy, employing a somewhat reckless serve-and-volley game that Murray dissected with pinpoint returns and a variety of passing shots. Tsonga came to net 76 times but converted just 53 percent of his opportunities.

Instead of stepping into his backhand as he did against Djokovic in Paris, Tsonga returned with passive, loose slice backhands, which gave Murray even more opportunities to control the point. Tactically, he played Murray as he might play a lesser player, such as Alexandr Dolgopolov, slicing back returns and expecting to capitalize on a mistake.

It is an approach that works against players who cannot be counted upon to make routine shots or maintain rallies, but it was a recipe for death against a player as precise and talented as Murray, who during this tournament has stepped on the accelerator whenever challenged, overpowering his opponents.

Tsonga is a player who relies on rhythm, on his terrific ebullience and crowd-pleasing showmanship. He plays as though he is a Class 5 river: calm in stretches, capable of ferocious sustained current in stretches that overwhelm opponents and make spectators take note of his force. He draws energy from his surroundings, and when the elements come together, he is a special performer.

"You know, I'm not the most talented on the tour, but I like to go to the war," Tsonga said after the match.

In the third and fourth, the energized, revitalized Tsonga appeared. He began moving his feet quickly, creating space and angle for the big forehand. He ripped backhands and made circus shots that took him back into the match.

The eighth game, however, was a microcosm of the Tsonga afternoon. A sailed volley, an ill-advised rush to the net, an ace and a missed volley set up double-break point for Murray. Tsonga survived, but he played the final games under a constant stream of pressure both of his and Murray's doing.

Serving 5-6, Tsonga yielded the first two points of the game, putting Murray two points away. At 15-30, another Tsonga rush to the net produced a backhand volley he drilled into the net, setting up double-match point -- a moment for which Murray's country had waited nearly three quarters of a century.

Against Murray, and obviously Djokovic, Federer and Nadal, Tsonga's streaky brilliance was exposed. Murray protected his second serve -- in the second set, Tsonga did not record a single point on Murray's second serve -- and he returned and shook off the demons that crept and gnawed and nearly forced a fifth set.

"Maybe it's too early to say what's happened today," Tsonga said. "But anyway, for me it was a good moment. Even in the loss, I'm still proud of what I did. Even if I did [make] some mistake and it was not good every time, I fight."

At the end of the day, Murray took advantage of every looping volley, every sprayed backhand and every unfocused moment from Tsonga and transformed it into fuel, fuel for a showdown with Federer. It will be a chance to turn Fred Perry, like he did to Bunny Austin Friday afternoon, away from a suffocating present and back to the quiet of history.