Misfiring Andy Murray blown away by Grigor Dimitrov
There was a marked hush around Wimbledon as the crowd digested the news. Andy Murray's title defence was over, and in the most curious half-hearted style.
Any tennis lover could have told you that Grigor Dimitrov would offer fierce competition yesterday. Everyone on Centre Court knew that he would be a class up from the four men Murray had previously eviscerated in straight sets.
But few would have predicted such a non-contest. Even Dimitrov himself seemed a little bewildered in the seconds after his 6-1 7-6 6-2 victory.
"As soon as we started warming up I could tell his game was not at the highest level," he said. "It's a tough feeling when you know the person and you have to face him on the court like that."
The first reaction was a sense of anti-climax. Even on the days when Murray is outplayed by a better opponent, we still expect him to rage his way through the exit door, rather than spiralling into a vortex of cheap errors.
The second reaction was to ask "What's eating Andy?" There were plenty of conspiracy theories doing the rounds last night, based on the fact that he and his girlfriend Kim Sears left in separate cars, and a few muttered remarks caught by the courtside microphones.
But the real explanation surely lies in the narrative of the last 12 months. Since that glorious summer's day at Wimbledon last July, Murray's record against top 10 players stands at six matches, six defeats.
He is a man who needs to build up his reserves of confidence before he can express himself on the court. And after a year in which he first underwent back surgery, and then lost his mentor Ivan Lendl, those reserves are running low.
"The frustrating thing was the amount of mistakes I made today," a softly-spoken Murray said afterwards.
Ranked No 13 on the eve of this tournament, Dimitrov is now guaranteed to climb to at least No 9 when the new table is released next week. He used to be a boy wonder, talented but feckless. But yesterday's seamless performance was surely proof that this is a Grand Slam champion in waiting.
While yesterday's match lasted a fraction over two hours, Dimitrov did the damage in the opening exchanges, specifically in a five-game stretch that began at 1-1 in the first set. Murray was still testing him out at this stage, looking for flaws in his single-handed backhand. And yet, as with a barrister who is not quite across his brief, the lines of enquiry were leading nowhere.
Dimitrov had an answer to everything as he mixed up a low, skimming slice with heavy topspin off that backhand wing – a supposed weakness that turned out to be nothing of the sort. As one ex-player observed after the match: "Andy thought he could just play rally balls and Grigor would miss, but Grigor is better than that; he won't miss unless you force him to."
It was an unfortunate regression to type from Murray: a man who was justly accused of passivity in the past, yet learned to roar with the help of Lendl's stern guidance.
Murray later denied that he had been affected by the pressure of expectation. The second set was the one competitive phase of the match. Murray started it with a couple of big serves. He finally managed to tangle Dimitrov up in a few long, lung-bursting rallies, most of which he tended to win.
When he scrapped his way into a tie-break, all the precedents suggested that he was about to make a significant push.
Yet Dimitrov had other ideas, producing a magnificent backhand pass to claim a mini-break and then nervelessly sealing a two-set lead.
From there, Murray's morale seemed to sink into his shoes and he surrendered the last four games of the match in a welter of double-faults and basic errors.
Murray will need to show some resilience over the coming weeks and months, for his ranking is about to fall to No 10 – its lowest position for six years.
"I don't feel old," he said afterwards. "I've had a good run here at Wimbledon over the last few years. Obviously it's disappointing for it to end like that. But now we'll see whether I can come back stronger and come back better. No one knows, but I'm going to try." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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