Roger Federer shows little appetite for Andy Murray's fairytale finish
In one of the finest Wimbledon finals of recent years, Andy Murray began by playing like he had never played before.
He ended by crying even more copiously than he had in Melbourne two years ago, the last time Roger Federer dashed his Grand Slam dream.
Against an inspired Federer, Murray snatched the first set, but couldn't claim the victory that so many British sports fans were praying for.
They came looking for a new Fred Perry, but left saluting a new William Renshaw -- the 19th-century legend whose seven Wimbledon titles have now been matched by Federer as well as by Pete Sampras.
"I'm getting closer," Murray said afterwards, as he choked his way through one of the longest and most tearful runner's-up speeches in the history of the sport. And he was right, because this was the first time in his four big finals that he was beaten purely on the court, rather than in his own mind.
At the end, Murray was invited to do a lap of honour alongside his conqueror, but sensibly declined. He had already won the crowd over to the extent that, as Federer prepared to serve for the match, Centre Court rang out to a football-style chant of "Andy, Andy."
The Murrayphiles were reaching for their hankies a few moments later, as their idol stammered out his gratitude.
Perhaps Murray's rare show of emotion will finally convince the sceptics among us that he is not the grinch who stole Christmas, but a magnificent athlete who has committed everything to his quest for that elusive Grand Slam.
Inside those four sets -- which finally swung Federer's way 4-6 7-5 6-3 6-4 -- there was so much to admire, and little to criticise.
Although this wretched summer should come in for a panning, because the opening of the skies early in the third set led to the closure of the roof, and a drastic shift in the balance of power.
The indoor environment could have been made for Federer, so perfectly does it suit his precise, almost retro-styled game. He uses a smaller racket head than all the other leading players, around 90 square inches whereas they are closer to 100.
And we saw in his tame exit from Roland Garros last month how seriously this can disadvantage him when the wind is blowing.
But in the perfect stillness of the grandest sports hall in Britain, Federer was untouchable. The smaller head gives more punch and precision when he strikes the ball dead centre, as he did throughout the second half of an increasingly miraculous performance.
The opening two sets had been agonisingly tight, so that as the players entered the rain break, Federer had 86 points to his name and Murray 85.
Credit to Murray, for it would have been all too easy to cede the psychological territory to Federer in those early stages. The great man is so sure of himself on Centre Court that he walked on first and acknowledged the standing ovation -- at least 80pc of which was meant for Murray -- as if it were aimed at him.
But it was Murray who opened the match with the silkier strokeplay, scoring a break in the very first game when Federer swung wildly at an easy, hanging ball and drove it a good metre-and-a-half long.
After more than two years without a Grand Slam title, and a heap of pressure on his shoulders, Federer took a little while to settle.
Soon Murray had stolen the initiative with the help of a very Ivan Lendl-like manoeuvre, driving the ball straight at the king of Wimbledon from close range and forcing the great man to bow his head to avoid it.
Perhaps this display of lese majeste rattled Federer, for he threw in a couple of shoddy errors in the next two points to cede the break, and Murray promptly served out for the set.
This was a match of light and shade, starting in improbably bright sunshine after the deluges of the morning. And Murray's tennis started out as miraculously unexpected as the weather. He had Federer on the back foot throughout the second set, serving superbly and harrying him off the ground.
Four break points came his way, two in the fifth game and two more in the ninth, but Murray missed his mark on each of them. These will be the opportunities that haunt him: the low volley that slid wide, the attempted forehand pass that Federer met with a stiff right wrist, and above all the backhand down the line that wouldn't quite come down in time.
The door remained open for Federer and he strode through, pulling off some quite breathtaking drop volleys to equalise at one set all. Of all the statistics, perhaps the key one was his 78 pc success rate at the net. More than a third of his overall points were won from that position, and that is a remarkable feat against a counter-puncher of Murray's class.
The few volleys he missed were off balls driven hard at his shoelaces or towards the furthest extension of his reach.
Of course, some will argue that four Grand Slam final defeats out of four is the mark of a born loser. Those people either were not watching Federer's impossible display of perfection, or they do not understand the sport.
The fortunes of the three men ahead of Murray in the tennis queue seem to ebb and flow. If it was Rafael Nadal's year in 2010, and Djokovic's in 2011, then 2012 could well belong to Federer, who will return to No 1 in the world today for the first time since May 2010.
Murray is more consistent, in that he seems forever to be on the verge of greatness. He has reached a single Grand Slam final in four of the last five seasons, losing three times to Federer and once to Djokovic. But he is getting closer. He really is. (© Daily Telegraph, London)