An entire island, and much of the wider world besides, trained its gaze on a crowded little crucible in south-west London and the historic events being played out there. This wasn't just Centre Court. It felt like the centre of the universe.
In the Sunday afternoon slot usually reserved by TV schedulers for omnibus editions of popular soap operas, this feature production was somewhere between reality show and melodrama. Like a sporting version of the Truman Show, the general population watched in hope – rather than expectation – as a young man from Dunblane, whose rites of passage have been played out in the public glare, walked haltingly towards his awesome destiny. This was the not inconsiderable task of becoming the first British man to win the men's singles at Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936, and the first Scottish-born player to do since Harold Mahony in 1897. After three heartbreaking semi-final defeats this was, by common consensus, the Scot's best chance yet. All he had to do was defeat the greatest player in the history of the sport.
Everybody wanted in on the action. Tickets for the arena were reportedly changing hands at £32,000-a-pair, while dukes and duchesses, prime ministers and first ministers, coalition partners and mayors, all jostled for position in the Royal Box. As David Beckham took their place in the box seats, his old gaffer Sir Alex Ferguson quietly snuck into a cosy wee spot at the other side of the stadium, presumably at a safe boot-throwing distance. They were the lucky ones. Out on what now, unmistakeably, is Murray Mound, all the prime vantage points were snapped up early. Scarcely a single piece of real estate was available a full two hours before a ball was struck, regardless of the torrential downpours forecast during the afternoon. Many queued up overnight simply for the privilege of being in close proximity to a piece of history.
There was early encouragement for everyone. The roar which greeted the arrival of our hero must have reverberated all the way back up to the Highlands, and before long an errant volley from Roger Federer allowed Murray break the Swiss serve in the first game of the match. A further guttural, rapturous racket greeted the consolidation of the Scot's early lead, a giant groan when a backhand into the net from Murray saw Federer restore parity at 2-2.
It was an utterly unique kind of atmosphere. Although you could have heard a pin drop during most rallies, breaks in play became an opportunity for individuals on either side to compete for the limelight with a series of attention-seeking and hardly satirical shrieks between points. "Do it for me, Andy," said one wag, sparking shouts of "And me". "You're a genius, Roger, a genius," said another, or rather pompously, "You are the King of this court, you're the reason I watch tennis".
Yet for all the millions of eyes trained on him yesterday, at times Centre Court must have been a lonely place for Andy Murray. Everything was running to plan when Federer netted with a backhand to allow him to serve for the set, a task he fulfilled with alacrity, but for all the best wishes being hurled in his direction, he was the only man could make his dream of a maiden grand slam win happen.
He more than held his own during a second set in which he failed to capitalise on four break points. But when things started to go wrong there was no hiding place. A couple of untimely errors and two stunning Federer volleys saw the Swiss nick it 7-5. The intermission arrived at 12 minutes past four. Storm clouds were gathering, both physically and metaphorically. The sky had noticeably darkened, and soon a torrent of rain was flooding from the heavens. Whether within the environs of the Centre Court, or facing a soaking on the hill, the question was whether the roof would suit one man more than the other.
It didn't take long for an answer to be delivered. A circus shot on the third point after the resumption, the 30-year-old Swiss dancing behind an outrageous slice cross court forehand – was a signal of the comfort Federer would feel under cover. He would probably also be some player in a vacuum and he was striking the ball with added precision, and before long the crowd was enduring an epic, seesawing sixth game of the third set which contained no fewer than 10 deuces, three Murray slips and six break points. Aces were arriving with regularity from the Federer serve and he duly took the set 6-3. Just as the Scot was having his wings clipped, a pigeon flew up to the roof and got trapped in the rafters.
His players box urged him on – with the exception of the still dormant Ivan Lendl – but by now the 25-year-old was wincing and holding his back between points, and Federer was scampering around like the younger man. Unable to capitalise on a break point in the second game, the Scot's serve was lost in the fifth, and the scorecard will show that Federer finished matters with a degree of comfort. That, however, would be entirely insufficient to encapsulate the drama and pathos of those last minutes.
There would be no happy ending, just a further tearjerker. But what a coda it was. It began at the change of ends at 5-4, as Federer prepared to serve for the match, and his record-equalling seventh title. At first the noise began hesitantly, as if afraid to voice itself. "Andy, clap, clap, clap", "Andy clap, clap, clap". Soon the rest of the crowd had picked up the idea and run with it. The chant went off between every point, scenes reminiscent of the so-called People's Final back in 2001, when Goran Ivanisevic beat Pat Rafter. It was a glorious, and thoroughly deserved show of affection for the challenger and for a while the whiff of revolution was in the air, but one last Murray return flew into the tramlines and Federer had his triumph.
The Scot was choked up about it all as he delivered his post-match address, but he could hardly be accused of choking on his big day. Big-hearted fans of Murray consoled themselves with the fact that Oxfam are £101,840 richer today, due to a bet laid by the late Mr Nick Newlife that Federer would go on to win seven Wimbledon singles titles, but the Scot had been no charity case.
Sir Alex never did get to celebrate a Scottish victory on Centre Court. But he would have been proud, very proud, of the effort Murray managed to put in yesterday.
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