Andy Murray is playing a second-round match on Centre Court at Wimbledon. At least, it looks like Andy Murray is playing a second-round match on Centre Court at Wimbledon.
Among the 7,500 or so in the crowd, there are more than a few disbelieving gazes. After four years away from the singles draw, is he really back? Did he really beat Nikoloz Basilashvili two nights ago, or was that just an imagined match, constructed somewhere in our brains, based on all the old quirks of a classic Murray encounter.
Is it – is he – a trick of the light, caused by that pesky ray of sun in the corner of Centre Court. He can’t be – the ray gradually retreats and the corner shrinks. A hologram perhaps? No, Hawkeye’s technical difficulties suggest a holographic Murray would be flickering and faltering. But he’s here in all his gruff glory.
The former world No 1, twice a champion on this court, is battling German qualifier Oscar Otte for a place in the third round.
And what plays out before the SW19 spectators on Wednesday evening is a classic Murray encounter. Real, not imagined. It segues from sport to theatre – unadulterated melodrama in five acts, or rather in five sets.
In fact, it’s an old classic with a few new twists.
The Scot’s grunt has aged a little – it’s more of a groan now, and audible from the very first point. “Eeeh, eeeh, aaah…”
As one gets older, they tend to be of shorter thrift. That’s Murray’s tennis at points in the first set. He stuffs some passing shots by Otte as if vexed by his opponent’s ventures to the net, slamming a couple at him, too.
But the former world No 1’s tennis has also grown even more graceful, it seems at times. There’s a lovely arc to his cross-court forehand – a handy weapon tonight – and a seamless swivel in those supposedly rusty hips. His slice is still as serrated as ever, almost cutting up the Centre Court turf. That’s the guile to match the grace.
He even creates angles with more ease than he used to, whether those be outside-in or inside-out groundstrokes.
But Murray still makes life more difficult for himself than it needs to be. Many games are in his grasp then slipping like Otte, who falls to the grass a number of times throughout.
In one of the most impressive sequences in the match, early in the second set, Murray plays an almost cocky drop shot on his forehand, before using the same limb to cushion a volleyed lob over a flailing, retreating Otte for a winner. He replicates the shot in the third set, this time off his backhand. It’s cruelly casual.
Moments later, he’s leaning back to curve a forehand winner past an onrushing Otte. It defies logic and the advice of every tennis coach anywhere, but it works.
Alongside the sigh-inducing errors and the awe-inspiring winners, there are moments of genuine concern for the Scot.
He slips and slides into the court’s backdrop as he attempts to return a lob, disappearing from view for a portion of the crowd. Is he okay? Say he’s okay. He is.
He lets out a horrible cry as he slips into a splits in the second game of the fourth set, though a couple of points later he beats Otte again with a passing shot and gestures to the heavens. The crowd are as raucous as they’ve been all day. There will be more from them.
Murray puts a first serve into the net and slaps his hip in anger. Will that old injury haunt him here? It seems not.
What follows is the most tense rally of the match. Murray wins it at the net. The crowd erupt into sustained applause and draw the first “come on!” from Murray so far tonight.
Soon, the fading summer evening forces the umpire’s hand. She calls for the roof to be closed. The lights come on. It’s now deafening inside Centre Court.
There are even a few boos for Otte, who does little wrong beyond trying his best to win but nevertheless becomes – briefly – a Shakespearian villain, despite his name being better suited to that of a Bond villain.
Finally, at 22.26pm, this five-act drama is complete and Murray, its protagonist, has survived.
He beats Otte 6-3 4-6 4-6 6-4 6-2 to advance to the third round of Wimbledon. In two days, he will have to take to the stage once more. Tougher antagonists await, that is for sure.
These may not be Murray’s final few performances at Wimbledon, but the crowd is reacting as though they are, and that may actually be for the best.
Murray was under-appreciated for so long. No one should be criticised for “over”-appreciating him now.