Few things can warp our minds and beguile our senses quite like nostalgia. At Wimbledon this week, Andy Murray had been its rawest essence, cycling through all the rips and tides that have been the lifeblood of his career, emptying wells of courage, berating himself in constant monologues and beating fists at a betrothed crowd. It had been both exhilarating and exhausting theatre, reviving a rollercoaster of emotions and stoking a fire with every act of defiance.
What the dramatics of those first two victories had overshadowed, though, were the vulnerabilities. The depths to which Murray had to plunge in his titanic five-set battle with world No 151 Oscar Otte were as much a warning as they were remarkable. And when faced by Denis Shapovalov in the third round, the immensely powerful and altogether more fearless tenth seed from Canada, the truth unravelled in cold and conclusive fashion.
It was by no means a rollover, with Murray drawing on every last drop of strength to fan the flickering hopes of a comeback. After all, regardless of the pain that’s coursed through his joints these past years, the 34-year-old has always guaranteed an utter refusal to give up. But that fact will provide little consolation to a one-sided scoreline, with Shapovalov’s blistering serve and barrage of vicious forehands proving an insurmountable hurdle as he closed out a 6-4 6-2 6-2 victory.
That scoreline will only tell half the story, with Murray mounting valiant fightbacks in the first and second sets. But the haunts of his fate were apparent from the offset, with Shapovalov, Wimbledon’s juvenile iconoclast, drowning Murray in a storm of youth. His groundstrokes fizzed with a possessed power, skidding into the corners like a metronome and, in that moment, Centre Court had never felt so wide as Murray scampered across the baseline, straining every sinew just to keep rallies alive.
But at 5-1, as the scale of his task became ever more daunting, Murray offered a first concrete spark of resistance that rapidly turned into a firework, igniting the crowd on Centre Court. And, if only briefly, Murray found a way to absorb Shapovalov’s punishing shots, matching youthful power with wisened precision to win 11 straight points. But Shapovalov has not earned a reputation as one of the stars of tennis’s next generation without running gauntlets before, even if this represented something different to anything he’d previously experienced. Attempting to serve out the first set, he saved three break points, produced the deftest drop-volley at the net and sealed a momentous hold with an emphatic smash. From thereon, in truth, the Canadian never looked back.
The crowd still attempted to breathe life into Murray’s challenge, recalling his most unthinkable upsets, the times when his undying determination alone seemed to break opponents. But Shapovalov paid no heed to romantic history. Ruthlessly aggressive, a cannon of 18 winners in the first set did not relent in the slightest and he broke Murray in the first game of the second and, as the hope steadily drained, it became clear the Canadian was now rampaging towards victory. If he did reveal any nerves, they did at least emerge in the form of two double faults that provoked a saga close to a match in itself as Shapovalov saved five break points. Murray summoned all his strength to find a breakthrough, a brilliant lob the pick of his shots, but on each occasion, Shapovalov found a way to raise his game and unleash another bludgeoning winner. This time, under this mountain of pressure, fatigue and so many physical disadvantages, Murray couldn’t raise the bar any higher.
A break for the roof closing offered a last dying hope. In his first two matches, the delay had prompted dramatic stands that led to Murray’s victory. But any optimism was stamped to remnants within a matter of minutes as Shapovalov instantly broke Murray’s serve another two times. Two valiant holds fended away the threat of an unforgiving bagel, but even Murray had long resigned to his fate by the time a twelfth bullish ace careered past him for a final time.
Perhaps, the result should come as no shock. The reason Murray’s comeback provokes such deep emotion is that has, in many respects, defied nature, going against every limitation set by our own bodies. Murray has proved himself hundreds of times and yet still shows the same gladiatorial spirit that refuses to burn out, no matter many questions of retirement are slung in his direction. To resuscitate such levels of nostalgia alone was once a barely imaginable feat, even if that illusion was shattered so bluntly. No matter how short-lived, Murray made us all believe again.
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