'Little Beast' a big test for Murray
Andy Murray returns to centre stage this afternoon at Wimbledon, and rightly so, for his quarter-final against David Ferrer is the match of the day.
Murray has been highly impressive so far, never allowing any of his four opponents to open up a lead.
But this is the moment when his campaign moves into hostile territory.
A match-up between the No 4 and No 5 players in the world is a blessing for the fans with tickets for the main arena. But Murray himself will look enviously at the relatively easy opponents faced by his main rivals. With all due respect, this tournament is not going to be won by Florian Mayer, Mikhail Youzhny or Philipp Kohlschreiber.
A year ago, you might have said the same about Ferrer. But the man they call 'Little Beast' has been magnificent this season, good enough to threaten the established order of the 'Big Four'.
Or at least, to threaten Murray's place in it. The two men are good friends off the court, but increasingly fierce rivals on it.
"David is a very nice guy -- a great professional," Murray said yesterday.
"And he's playing the best tennis of his career in his 30s, which it seems is happening more and more now. He's just kept working, doing all the right things and just kept improving. People might think he is a clay-court specialist but he won last week on grass (in Holland) so he's on an eight-match winning streak.
"I've known him and Javier Piles, his coach, for a long time," Murray added. "I chat to Javier about running a lot -- he is an unbelievably fit guy. When we're at the Miami tournament, at the end of the day he always runs back all the way from the courts in Key Biscayne to where their hotel is. It's like 11km.
"And obviously that work ethic has paid off with David."
Expect this to be a serious test of nerve for Murray, and for the crowd too. There is little to choose between the two: Ferrer leads the head-to-head count 5-4, while in Grand Slam events it is one win apiece, after Murray's semi-final defeat in Paris a month ago.
There are parallels in playing style too. Both men hate giving away freebies. So far this Wimbedon, they have the lowest unforced-error counts among the eight survivors (Murray 52, Ferrer 44).
In Murray's case, this is because he is a uniquely stubborn character, who takes every failing personally. As for Ferrer, his natural tenacity has been honed by the hard-bitten Piles, who famously locked him in a cupboard as a teenager when he showed insufficient commitment to practice.
The man who emerged from those harsh years of training possesses such superhuman resolve that Ferrer's cupboard has taken on mythic proportions -- making it the tennis equivalent of Peter Parker's spider-bite, or Batman's early bereavement.
In that cupboard, Piles forged the man the Spaniards call 'Ferru' -- a diminutive that translates to 'Iron' in Catalan.
Murray and Ferrer will be on Centre Court today, which could be handy if there are more showers to disrupt the outside courts. It is the turn of defending champion Novak Djokovic to battle the elements on the roofless Court One, which evens things up after Murray had to play through the drizzle in his fourth-round match against Marin Cilic.
After persistent rain had prevented any play after 4.20 on Monday afternoon, Murray came back at noon yesterday leading by a set and a break.
And he knew there could be no relaxing against Cilic, because the weather radar was predicting interruptions all afternoon.
Murray only had a short window of opportunity to get the job done. To his great credit, he snatched his chance with an emphatic three-set victory: 7-5 6-2 6-3. It was a compelling performance, in which his serve was dominant.
The key moment came in the first game of the third set, when Cilic gathered his fading resources to launch one final assault, and gained four set points. Murray rebuffed each one with an unplayable service winner.
"If I serve like I did today, it doesn't matter how well someone's returning," Murray said. He delivered 10 aces in the final set.
With any luck, we can now put the debate over scheduling to bed.
Murray has survived his trial by wind and weather on Court One, and took a philosophical stance last night about the whole affair. "I don't deserve to play all my matches on Centre Court," he said.
"Maybe someone like Roger (Federer) does." From here on in, he will have the advantage of the roof on his side. But even if the order-of-play subcommittee has faded out of the picture, there could be more trouble ahead, in the shape of the remorseless, implacable David Ferrer. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Live, TG4/BBC1/BBC2, from 11.30