The look of relief and delight that spread over Andy Murray’s face on Wednesday night said it all. Now he could allow himself a little smile. Now he could admit that the draw had opened up for him. Now he did not have to play Rafael Nadal.
Ever since Nadal packed his bags and headed for home in the second round, Scotland’s finest has been telling anyone who would listen – and very few would as Andymonium started to build – that the stunning upset made not one jot of difference to him. It would only affect his challenge for the title if he reached the last four – and he did that on Wednesday evening with a lung-bursting marathon of a match to beat David Ferrer 6-7 (5), 7-6 (6), 6-4, 7-6 (4).
That said, the draw has still only opened up a bit: he may not be playing the former champion but he still has to find a way to beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the world No.6, on Friday. It is not as if Rafa left a ticket to the final pinned on Murray’s locker door before he caught the first flight back to Manacor. The fact that Murray leads the Frenchman 5-1 in career meetings will give him some comfort but this is still a Grand Slam semi-final; from now on, the form book means nothing – it is who has the heart and the nerve to take their chances that matters.
“Jo's a tough opponent,” Murray said. “He served, I think, very well so far this tournament. It's a very different match to playing against Rafa, but he's one of the best grass court players in the world, that's for sure.”
It took eight minutes shy of four hours for Murray to get the better of Ferrer: four sets, three nail-biting tie-breaks and one rain delay.
This was not a match for those of a nervous disposition. And throughout it all, both men ran and chased and retrieved. Murray’s defensive play is of the best in the world while Ferrer’s speed around the court is the stuff of legend – there is nowhere to put the ball that he will not find it, reach it and smack it away for a potential winner.
At 5ft 9ins, Ferrer is one of the slighter figures on the professional tour. In fact, one of the Centre Court ball boys was bigger than the world No.5 – taller, broader and considerably more muscular. But, boy, can Ferrer move. Couple that with the ability to time the ball perfectly off the strings and Ferrer was a small, but perfectly proportioned, brick wall that Murray kept banging his head against.
For the best part of two sets, the home hope was not willing to wallop the ball at full power and he was being punished for it. The swirling wind meant he had to be careful while his meagre first serve statistics – just 51 per cent in the first set – were costing him dear. Despite the crowd’s attempt to help, Murray was in all sorts of trouble at a set and 5-4 down. Ignoring the coaching tips from the stands – cries of “attack!” and “no more drop shots!” probably did little for his mood – he did what he does best, gritted his teeth and pounced as Ferrer tried to serve for the second set.
From there, the Scot began to reel in his opponent in. Levelling the scores by taking the second set tie-break, Murray began to play better. The longer the match wore on, the more potent his serve became and that gave him a platform from which to build. With the wind dropping slightly, he added more venom to his shots and plotted a path to the semi-finals. And then it rained. At 5-5 in the fourth set. That is just the point in a match when a chap wants a 20-minute time out.
“I went for a shower,” Murray said. “I threw some cold water on my face and then saw the physio and got stretched. That was a bit intense. We were in this tiny room with all the other physios and David is one bed away from me. So, it was a pretty intense atmosphere in there. It’s a huge match for both of us, it’s a critical stage in the match and, yeah, it’s a bit uncomfortable when you come off at 5-5 in a rain delay.”
But once he was allowed back on court, Scotland’s finest and the nation’s hope wasted no time as he tore through the tiebreak and into the semi-finals.
Now, at last, he could relax. Now he did not have to play Rafa Nadal.