LONDON // Whatever happens in his men's singles quarter-final this afternoon, Andy Murray will leave Wimbedon this year safe in the knowledge that he has picked up the baton from Tim Henman as the darling of the Centre Court.
The young Scot, hitherto viewed suspiciously by a predominantly Middle England crowd because of his surly manner, won over all doubters by the sheer magnificence of his passage into the last eight of the tournament. Henman, as quintessentially English as they come, rose to cult status in London SW19 by taking the 15,000 on court and thousands more on the hill in the grounds named after him on countless white knuckle roller coaster rides of fluctuating emotions in his matches. He reached four semi-finals and four quarter-finals during his decade of shouldering the hopes of the home nation.
Until this week Murray had never done that, but he matched that drama and possibly eclipsed anything that Henman has done here in the manner he came back against the Frenchman Richard Gasquet. He stormed through in five thrilling sets moments before the referee would have had to pull the exhausted players off court for bad light. Nobody left the world's most famous arena or tennis's version of the Spion Kop which is now named, depending on your preference, Murray Mount or Murrayfield, until the British No1 had completed his 5-7 3-6, 7-6, 6-2, 6-4 triumph which spanned two minutes short of four hours.
It mattered not to his captivated audience - and there were millions more watching on live television across the globe - that Murray, outclassed in a match of two halves, should have been sent packing two hours earlier as Gasquet, outstanding and in total control, prepared to serve out for what looked a straight-sets win. The Frenchman's fragile temperament which has failed him before let him down big time here as he threw a grateful Murray a lifeline which the Scot, to his enormous credit, took brilliantly.
At the moment of victory Murray displayed a bulging bicep as if to say to his next opponent Rafael Nadal, favourite to depose the five-time champion Roger Federer here, that he will not be bullied by the powerful Spaniard who has beaten him on all three of the previous occasions they have met. Murray denied afterwards that it was an intimidating message to the French Open champion who is considered the strongest player on tour, the gesture was meant to show the world that all of the intensive fitness training he has put his body through this year is paying off.
If Murray does find a way past the daunting figure of Nadal today, he will fancy his chances in the semi-finals because two non-seeds accompany him and Nadal in the bottom half of the draw - the thirtysomethings of Arnaud Clement and Rainer Schuettler who meet on Court One. At the top of the draw, the defending champion and the world no1 Roger Federer takes on the last player to beat him on these lawns back in 2002, Mario Ancic of Croatia, while the enduring talents of the erratic Russian Marat Safin will be doing battle with Spain's Feliciano Lopez.