x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Murray's date with destiny

The World No 4 must be at the top of his game to be the first Briton to reach the men's final since 1938.

Much is expected from Britain's Andy Murray after England crashed out of the football World Cup.
Much is expected from Britain's Andy Murray after England crashed out of the football World Cup.

Two of the most repeated statistics during sporting summers in the United Kingdom are England's failure to win an international football trophy since 1966 and Britain's inability to produce a men's singles champion at Wimbledon for the first time since 1936. Andy Murray, though most definitely Scottish and fiercely proud of that heritage, said he was going to be cheering as enthusiastically as any flag-waving English supporter, before Fabio Capello's team succumbed 4-1 to Germany last weekend in the last 16 of the World Cup.

While England were still in with a chance in South Africa, Murray was of secondary importance to the British public. Consequently, the world's fourth-best tennis player relished the rare opportunity to duck under the radar - and the weight of expectation - for the first week of the Wimbledon fortnight. Capello and his players barely had time to clear the Heathrow Airport arrivals hall when, just a few miles down the road in south west London, the heat of a success-starved nation was turned up on Murray.

After breezing through his first four matches without dropping a set, the demeanour of the British No 1 changed noticeably in his quarter-final against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Wednesday. He looked in great danger of following Roger Federer through the exit door before he managed to recapture the impressive form which has made him such a strong title-contender here. He eventually fought through in four sets.

Today is the moment of truth for Murray, who must find a way past the daunting figure of Rafael Nadal to become the first home representative in the final since Bunny Austin in 1938 and set up a chance to emulate Fred Perry, who won the last of his three titles in 1936. Murray has a less-than-encouraging record against Nadal, now even more firmly re-established as world No 1 following Federer's shocking quarter-final defeat.

The most significant of seven losses in 10 meetings with the Spaniard was on the lawns of the All England Club two years ago when Nadal brutally hammered him 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 en route to taking the title from Federer. "I know it is going to be an incredibly difficult match for me to win," Murray said. "But it is one I feel I can win if I play well." When they last met, on his way to the Australian Open final, Murray benefited from the injury retirement of Nadal, although Murray was two sets up at the time of the withdrawal.

He has enormous respect for the Spaniard. "He's playing great," Murray said. "He's in the semi-finals of a grand slam again and he's beaten [Robin] Soderling, who is playing the best tennis of his career, to get there. I shall have to serve really well and keep a good length on the ball to have a chance." Nadal's prospects of repeating his 2008 triumph here - he failed to defend the title last year because of injury - looked bleak when he surrendered the first five games of his quarter-final with Soderling, but the Spaniard was delighted with the way he turned things round.

"I am very happy how I'm playing as I arrive in the semi-finals," was his warning to Murray. The winner of the more exciting of today's two semi-finals will be budgeting for a final appearance on Sunday against Novak Djokovic, the world No 3 and winner of the 2008 Australian Open, but may instead have to deal with the bludgeoning forehand of Tomas Berdych, a weapon which proved too much for a below-strength Federer.

Djokovic tried not to gloat over missing his scheduled date with the defending champion, preferring to extol the virtues of his own impressive form. "Regardless of who I'm up against, if I play as well in the semi-finals as I did in the quarters [against Yen-hsun Lu], then I have a good chance of making the final," he said. wjohnson@thenational.ae