FOR 77 years, we went into Wimbledon fortnight asking the same question. ‘Can a British man win Wimbledon?’ And for 77 years, the answer was always, ‘No’.
By the end, it had stopped being a query and had become more of a heartfelt plea. While so much of British sport had transformed itself over the course of more than three-quarters of a century, the failure to produce a domestic male winner of the nation’s only Grand Slam was a source of enduring embarrassment.
Not anymore. When Andy Murray hoisted the Wimbledon trophy above his head last July, he didn’t just secure the greatest achievement of his own career, he filled the biggest void in British sport.
Today, as the 2014 Championships get under way at the All England Club, the question on the nation’s lips has changed. Now, we ask, ‘Can a British man win Wimbledon again?’ And the answer, as Murray prepares to play his first-round game against Belgian David Goffin, is ‘Certainly’.
“I’m putting myself under pressure to perform,” said Murray, who has reached two quarter-finals and a semi-final in the three Grand Slams played since last year’s Wimbledon. “I want to try and win more slams if I can.
“It took me a long time to win the first Wimbledon title, I’d made three semis and a final before I finally achieved it. Perhaps it’s a bit naive to think the second could come around so quickly, but I’ll try my best to give myself a chance.
“I’ve done that quite well over the last few years, so hopefully I can do that again. But I’m not looking that far ahead, to be honest. With the depth in the game right now, you can’t afford to look past your next opponent.
“However, having won last year can only help me. Having had that experience and gained that understanding of what it actually takes to win will be no bad thing if the chance comes around again.”
Last year. Murray went into Wimbledon refreshed after missing the French Open through injury and buoyed by an 11-game unbeaten run on grass that featured a victory at the Aegon Championships at Queen’s.
This time around, there was no such restorative break during the clay-court season and his defence of his Queen’s Club title ended when he lost to Radek Stepanek in his second game.
There were signs of rustiness in Murray’s display, with his first serve in particular misfiring, but hardly cause for panic. Indeed, having made the last four at Roland Garros, it could be argued that the Scot was better served by having a few days off in the build up to Wimbledon rather than playing another three games on a surface he already knows so well.
His early exit at Queen’s enabled him to spend more time working with his new coach, Amelie Mauresmo, who has replaced Ivan Lendl, who played such a crucial role in last year’s triumph.
March’s split with Lendl undoubtedly unsettled Murray, and while the British number one attempted to soldier on for a while without a full-time coach, he has always been a player who benefits from a degree of guidance.
He needed someone alongside him, and now that the initial furore over Mauresmo’s appointment as the only female coach working with a top-ten ranked male has died down, it will be fascinating to see how the pair gel. It is still early days in their relationship, but the initial signs are positive.
“She’s good fun,” said Murray. “But it takes a few days before we’ll probably start cracking jokes. I’m enjoying the sessions we’ve been doing, and it feels like we’re doing the right things.
“I like how she thinks tactically and how she studies matches and opponents. It’s all still new, but it’s exciting. If I lose in the first round at Wimbledon though, it certainly wouldn’t be her fault.”
As last year proved, Murray undoubtedly possesses the game to make a successful defence of his title. His movement and array of shot-making has always been ideally suited to grass, and whereas his first serve was once a source of weakness, it now provides a succession of cheap points.
His temperament, another area that let him down in the past, appears becalmed, and he is much more willing to dictate matters in the latter stages of a Grand Slam, wresting the initiative from an opponent rather than looking to counter-punch on the back foot.
None of that means he will end the next fortnight as champion, of course, as the level of competition at the top of the men’s game remains ferociously high.
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal head into Wimbledon well established as the top two players in the world, while it would be dangerous to write off Roger Federer completely despite continued signs of decline in the Swiss star’s game. Further down the seedings, Stanislas Wawrinka, Tomas Berdych and a reborn Ernests Gulbis are all dangerous opponents on their day.
Nevertheless, as number three seed, the draw has been kind to Murray, with clay-court specialists Fabio Fognini and David Ferrer potentially representing his toughest opposition before a possible semi-final with Djokovic.
“I don’t tend to look too far down the draw,” said Murray. “It’s not very respectful to all the great players out there and we’ve seen plenty of surprise results over the years at Wimbledon. I just hope I play well and have a good tournament.”