WIMBLEDON, LONDON // Middle England has been slow to accept Scotland's Andy Murray, once described as "a scruffy little urchin with a disagreeable nature".
But this year's Wimbledon has changed all that. The brilliant young tennis player is now a true Brit with true grit, despite his agonising failure last night to reach a first final at the spiritual home of tennis. The crowds who assemble each year on what used to be Henman Hill in the hope of cheering a home-grown star to the men's singles title are now content to be occupying the newly named territory of Murray Mound.
Yesterday they gathered in their hundreds, decked out in their hero's national colours, the Saltire and Union Flag flying high, as they willed their man on to win on home turf and in the process become the first British player in more than 70 years to reach the men's final of the most famous tennis championship in the world. Any delay in the hill's rechristening ended five days ago when Murray captivated an entire nation and forced the BBC into prime-time rescheduling by overcoming Switzerland's Stanislas Wawrinka in a marathon battle under the Centre Court's wonderful new £80 million (Dh480m) roof.
English, Scots, Welsh and Irish along with an array of overseas visitors returned to the mound yesterday and left hardly a blade of grass visible as they roared encouragement at the giant television screen. Those watching "Braveheart" Murray fall fractionally short in his three-hour semi-final battle with the former world No 1, Andy Roddick, twice a Wimbledon runner-up, in the grounds of the All England Club either could not acquire Centre Court seats at the official price of £92 or could not afford them at the inflated sell-on rate. Reports yesterday claimed that some tickets were being offered for £10,000 each (Dh60,000).
On the mound, which had been put into party mood by Roger Federer's straight-sets victory over Tommy Haas in the the first semi-final, there was an obvious air of expectancy as Murray went through his warm-up routine. Wearing a tam o'shanter with a ridiculous ginger wig was Craig Edwards from Stirling, just down the road from Murray's home town of Dunblane. He had entered the pre-tournament ticket ballot in the hope of getting seats for himself and his wife Sue. Having failed, he made the long journey ticketless just to be able to say "I was there" if Murray had indeed managed to become the first Briton to reach the final since Henry "Bunny" Austin in 1938. Not since Fred Perry in 1936 has a Briton won the men's title.
Murray had once upset English sports fans with what he later insisted was a tongue-in-cheek remark. He had claimed he supported any country that England were about to play at football. Some may still hold that against him, but they were hard to find on his mound last night. Sporting an England football shirt, Frank Shaw said he had long forgiven Murray for the quip. "He's apologised enough times for that, so we should let it lie," he said. "I'm behind him all the way as he flies the British flag for us all. If he wants to fly the Scottish one as well, then let him."
Despite the best efforts of the Centre Court crowd to spur their man on to victory, it was not to be. It was a titanic struggle, but as Murray's last desperate attempted pass crashed into the net, the dream was over - for another year at least. Roddick looked up to the heavens as his disconsolate opponent looked down at the Wimbledon turf. After the game, Murray said: "I did better than I ever had before. I thought I dealt well with everything that was put in front of me well. I'll come back next year and try and do better.
"I think I have a chance of winning this title one day. And I think the way that I played this year, it was very, very close to getting to the final. "I believe I can win a Grand Slam. Whether it's Wimbledon or the US Open or Australia or whatever, I'm going to give myself chances. "I'll move on very quickly from this defeat and go and work on my game and improve and come back stronger." Asked about the level of support back in Scotland, he replied: "I don't get a chance to go back there as much as I would like. But my friends and my family tell me the support's been great. So that's awesome. Regardless of who's supporting you, it's always nice when you've got people behind you."
A relieved-looking Roddick, fresh from his 6-4 4-6 7-6 7-6 victory, admitted he was lucky. "I had to play my best tennis to win. I can't say enough good things about Andy's game. Not many people were giving me much of a chance but I knew if I could stay the course, I had a chance. "He had a lot of pressure on him. He's a much better player than I have been over the last year, I was just a little bit better today."
While Murray's hopes were dashed, tomorrow's final pits Roddick against Federer, who will be competing for a sixth Wimbledon and record 15th Grand Slam title. firstname.lastname@example.org