- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
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WIMBLEDON, England -- Andy Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, now staring at one another in the Wimbledon semifinals, embody the wreckage of the big three. They hope to create a space at the table for themselves. Roger Federer has held a Grand Slam trophy 16 times, Rafael Nadal 11 times and Novak Djokovic five times. They have defined a generation of tennis.
After an energetic day of tennis in which Murray outlasted the relentless David Ferrer 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 6-4, 7-6 (4) on Centre Court and Tsonga finally and definitively solved Philipp Kohlschreiber 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-2 on No. 1 Court, one of them will vie for his first Wimbledon title. But first they need to play each other, while Federer and Djokovic clash in the other semifinal.
Murray and Tsonga have always been the postscript, but both stand all the closer to a title thanks to their inspired, focused play during the tournament and the enormous void left by Nadal's vacating the grounds in the second round. Murray is royalty without the title, better than the rest significantly in rankings points, overall ability and Masters 1000 titles. He is the one player who can consistently challenge and defeat the reigning lords of the game, even though the closer he has gotten to a Grand Slam title, it has always Federer (twice, both in finals) or Nadal (six times, four in the semifinals) or Djokovic (twice, once each in a final and semifinal) who has doused Murray's dreams.
Tsonga has always been one of the game's great showman and also one of its great players. But he has always followed his greatest triumphs by congratulating the elders in defeat. His enduring images have been of supercharged electricity and deep pain.
The former on stage here last year when he beat Federer in the quarterfinals, the latter a month ago when he sat with a towel in his chair and soaked in defeat for what felt like an eternity after losing in five sets to Djokovic in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros -- a match in which he owned four match points.
When Tsonga reached his first final in the 2008 Australian Open, it was Djokovic who beat him. Two days after his triumphant takedown of Federer at Wimbledon in 2011, it was Djokovic who finished Tsonga's run in the semifinals. Since the commotion began 29 majors ago, and the big three consolidated power, only Juan Martin Del Potro (at the 2009 U.S. Open) has broken their grip on the most important championships in tennis.
It was an afternoon full of discovery. Murray is not only the defeated Scot, but the hope. Wimbledon hasn't been won by a member of the United Kingdom since before World War II, when Fred Perry won the last of his three consecutive titles in 1936. It is a burden Murray seems to carry like ballast, and his search to combine his pressures continues -- something that other superstars have endured before finally winning.
"Well, I'd say like LeBron James, for example, you know, would be a good example," Murray said. "He obviously is a great basketball player. He came very close to winning quite a lot of times.
"I would say for me I guess it's a similar situation. I've been close a lot of times and not quite made it. You know, just have to keep putting myself in the position, and hopefully it will click."
If Murray has always believed a championship to be in his future, he has for perhaps the first time tamed the demons that hindered him. Throughout the tournament he has been challenged but has responded by playing better. He was in danger on Centre Court against Marcos Baghdatis in the fourth round and simply played nearly flawless tennis.
Against Ferrer, the fifth-ranked player in the world, Murray won by believing in his gifts. Ferrer had a stranglehold on the match, up a set and serving for the second at 5-4. But Murray outfought one of the game's best fighters, breaking Ferrer and forcing a tiebreaker.
Ferrer led 5-2 in the tiebreaker, and Murray ripped off five straight points to win the set. On Centre Court, Murray grew up, discarding the emotional histrionics that have traditionally undone him. In the biggest moments, Murray stepped into his crosscourt backhand -- a huge shot for him in this match -- and pinned Ferrer to the baseline. Murray grew tougher when Ferrer faltered, as he was just 2-of-12 on break points.
There were occasional flights from belief. At one point, when the altitude thinned, Murray would attempt to escape the point with drops, forcing a member of the audience to yell in between points, "NO MORE DROP SHOTS, ANDY!" Armed with a 135 mph serve, it was good advice.
When the rain on Court Philippe Chatrier fell on the towel that covered Tsonga's head following the Djokovic heartbreak last month, the appreciative French crowd cheered its defeated hero, waiting for him to rise. Even Djokovic stood nearby, out of respect for his opponent and the rigor of a grueling match.
Tsonga said afterward that losing to Djokovic was the worst loss of his life and that he would return to grass -- his best surface -- more dangerous than ever. It easily could have been interpreted as an empty boast considering Tsonga's reputation for losing his concentration.
If Wimbledon is any indication, Tsonga very well may have turned an important corner. He avoided Nadal, but for a player with a 130 mph serve, equal pace on the forehand and as much athleticism as any player on tour, Tsonga's greatest enemy is often standing on his side of the net. During the tournament, however, like Murray, Tsonga has reinforced his weaponry.
His serve has hardly been broken here. He has attacked and repelled challenges not by fighting with himself on the baseline, but by reinforcing what he does well. Tsonga faced multiple tiebreaker situations against Kohlschreiber and did not wilt. On serve, Tsonga attacks the T and corners with rousing confidence. On his forehand, he has abandoned all reserve.
In being a more focused and ready player, Tsonga has been true to his word.
In trusting his skill and calming his rages, Murray has been inching closer to the cup that has been within an inch of his grasp while releasing the sandbags of history from his country and his own expectations.
Each is a win from yet another test against one of the defining players of his time. Each has successfully fought his demons, and both remain alive in the tournament for the right to play each other. It is almost like looking in the mirror.
Andy Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have always been the wounded. But for one of them, Wimbledon might end years of torture.