NEW YORK – Waiting for Fred (or a reasonable facsimile). That’s been the turgid status of the British sporting crowd for — let’s see? – 72 years. Yearning for another Fred Perry. Such are in very short supply.
Although the Brits invented tennis as we know it, they haven’t been able to play the game for decades. The guys anyway. I mustn’t slight the gracious and graceful Virginia Wade, winner of the inaugural U.S. Open in 1968, and Wimbledon in 1977.
However, the most recent male Brit to win a major was the English-born Hall of Famer Fred Perry, taking both Wimbledon and the U.S. in 1936. Those were Great Depression days, and the tennis-minded Limeys have been depressed ever since.
It’s been like waiting for Godot. Or Sarah Palin to attend “Hair” in Central Park. There have been close calls with glory. Bunny Austin made the Wimbledon final in 1938, losing to Grand Slammer Don Budge, and Greg Rusedski (purchased from Canada), the U.S. final of 1997, falling to another Hall of Famer, Patrick Rafter.
Nevertheless, hope that springs eternal (but seems to have busted springs for the Brits) is greening up at Flushing in the 21-year-old person of Andy Murray. Not an Englishman, mind you – he scolded me for addressing him as such – but an extremely talented Scotsman. That’s good enough for the Brits. But like Macbeth, he’s far from loveable.
“Getting better, not so churlish,” says a London scribe, a member of the sizeable Murray Journalistic Corps, a group of about 20 newspaper, TV and radio homeland folk who trail him to the majors, hanging on his every verb and volley.
They and their audiences were rewarded yesterday as Murray barely severed the second longest winning streak of the season, and charged onward to the semifinals, a perch last occupied by a Brit here in 2004: Tim Henman.
A slight 6-foot-3, Murray seemed dwarfed by muscular 6-foot-6 Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro. Still he pulled it off against against the stunning teen-ager who hadn’t lost since July, 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (7-1), 4-6, 7-5. Though beaten in a rousing 4 hours, Del Potro is a youngster to command your attention, a 19-year-old who has risen from No. 65 at Wimbledon to No. 15.
Although raised on the dirt of Tandil, a prosperous city 400 miles from Buenos Aires he moved onto American pavement with a vengeance, winning Los Angeles (over Andy Roddick) and Washington (over tough Serb Viktor Troicki) after taking European clay titles in Stuttgart and Kitzbuhel. Progressing to the Open quarters, Juan racked up 23 straight match victories.
Though he had left knee problems, requiring constant taping, and seemed out of it after two sets, Juan counter-attacked fiercely, jarring Murray with huge forehands, and moving brilliantly. He looks to be the best player to come out of the Argentine since the country’s tennis godfather, Guillermo Vilas, who beat Jimmy Connors to win the last U.S. Open at Forest Hills in 1977. Vilas, in attendance, glowed approvingly.
Del Potro sighed, weeping, “I was feeling pain in all my body, but I did my best and we played a good match.” And how. It was a gut check for both of them as they kept breaking each other throughout the closing set with breathless shotmaking that had the sunny afternoon-into-night crowd of 22,267 screaming.
“I don’t know how many straight matches I won,” said Del Potro, “but I play against one of the best player of the world…wins against (Rafa) Nadal and (Novak) Djokovich. He was gooder than me, so I have to work.”
You believe he will. It took all of Murray’s cleverness, shotmaking speed changes and fleetness in successfully pursuing the Latin’s roaring blows.
First time in a major semifinal for Murray, he goes against the favorite Rafa Nadal, who had to battle until 2:10 Thursday morning to get rid of pesky volleyer, Mardy Fish, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-2. Murray Andy dug himself out of four break points to go ahead 3-2 in the fourth. Later he held to 6-5 from 0-30. Del Potro rescued the first match point with a service winner, but was caught by successive soft shots, a slice and a chop.
Andy said, “I’m relieved. I played two good tie-breakers, then broke a string and my serve went off. We both had problems serving into the wind. I played the big points great, was happy the way I was able to come back after losing the third.”
He didn’t wear kilts, but several of his faithful did, and the Scotsman will get fine reviews from his company of Boswells. It’s not every day – or do I mean year? – that a Brit ascends to a major final four.
The Isles are still waiting for Fred, but there is a glint of hope. After all, Andy was wearing Fred Perry logo togs.