LONDON – Imagine what the reception will be like for Andy Murray Monday when he first strides onto the green grass of Centre Court at Wimbledon.
A year ago, Murray became the first British man since Fred Perry in 1936 to win the singles title at a tournament the locals refer to simply as “The Championships,” ending a nation’s long wait and sparking talk of a knighthood.
This year, Murray gets the defending champion’s honor of playing the fortnight’s first match on the most famous tennis court in the world. Seems safe to say that 15,000 or so of his closest friends will greet him with a full-throated roar.
“As the time gets nearer, and, you know, I get ready to play the first match on Monday, I’ll definitely ... be excited about it,” Murray said. “I will be nervous. It (is) an experience; something I have never experienced before. Players have talked about it in the past, that it’s a great experience. But it can also be a nerve-racking one.”
Murray had a slow start this season, coming off back surgery, and he hasn’t reached a final since Wimbledon 50 weeks ago.
But he showed he’s on the way back to peak form by reaching the semifinals at the French Open.
Performing that well on clay would seem to bode well for what he can do on grass.
“I expect to play well there. I’m really looking forward to going back. I think it will give me a lot of positive energy,” Murray said. “I’m glad I’m back playing to a level that was able to get me through to the last stage of Slams.”
As for how Murray will handle whatever jitters accompany his first trip back to the site of his most significant victory, his peers think he’ll be just fine.
“The way he’s got himself back into shape again, I think he can really believe again. That’s what’s most important now,” said Roger Federer, who won seven of his record 17 major championships at Wimbledon and is coming off a grass title at Halle, Germany. “(Being) defending champion is never an easy thing. But then again, he played so well on grass the last few years. ... I would feel comfortable if I was Andy at this point.”
Novak Djokovic, the 2011 champion and runner-up to Murray last year, agreed.
“I’m sure that Andy, with all the experience he has playing in the big matches, and especially here in front of his home crowd, understands and knows the way how to handle the pressure and expectation,” Djokovic said. “So I expect him to do well.”
The other reigning singles champion, France’s Marion Bartoli, will not try to defend her title, announcing her retirement at 28, less than six weeks after the 2013 final. That actually fits well with the quirky career of Bartoli, who certainly did things her way, down to her two-fisted strokes for forehands, backhands and volleys.
While Murray’s baseline game is rather conventional by today’s standards, his coaching decisions have been groundbreaking. After parting in March with Ivan Lendl – whose hiring was followed by those of fellow past greats of the game Stefan Edberg (by Federer) and Boris Becker (by Djokovic) – Murray picked former women’s No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo as a replacement this month.
“All I’m interested in is to be able to help him (reach) his goals,” Mauresmo said. “That’s about it.”
Murray, who grew up in Dunblane, Scotland, has made plain that those aims are primarily about winning more Grand Slam trophies.
He earned his first at the 2012 U.S. Open, shortly after winning a gold medal at the London Olympics. Those triumphs followed his loss to Federer at Wimbledon that year. In 2013, Murray beat Djokovic in the Wimbledon final to end the 77-year drought.
Scotland’s vote in September about whether to break away from Britain – Murray has steadfastly avoided weighing in – will be a popular topic of conversation around London this summer, and with England’s early elimination from the World Cup, the attention on “Our Andy” at Wimbledon figures to be as strong as ever.
“Anytime you taste what it feels like to win it once, you obviously want to win it again. So there’s an element of pressure you put on yourself, for starters, because you sort of want to see what that feels like at least one more time,” said ESPN analyst John McEnroe, who won Wimbledon three times. “From that standpoint, he’s going to be feeling pressure. Clearly now once people know he can do it, they’re going to think he should do it again.”