He put his fans through the wringer again but Andy Murray now stands one win from ending 76 years of British pain after reaching the Wimbledon men’s final on Friday - the only trouble is Roger Federer will be over the other side of the net.
The Scot’s nervy 6-3 6-4 3-6 7-5 victory over Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on a sun-kissed Centre Court gave the host country its first men’s finalist since Bunny Austin in 1938 but the 25-year-old will pay little heed to erasing that statistic.
Federer, who has made a career out of re-writing the record books, proved without doubt his powers are not fading when the 30-year-old outplayed reigning champion Novak Djokovic 6-3 3-6 6-4 6-3 to reach a record eighth Wimbledon singles final.
“I always say in whatever country I am I like to play the local hero, I kind of call them, and Andy is exactly that here at Wimbledon,” Federer told reporters after reaching his first All England Club final since beating Andy Roddick in 2009.
Murray’s win, ending a sequence of 11 semi-final defeats for British men at the grasscourt citadel, set up a dream final against the Swiss who is poised to return to the world summit after two years playing second fiddle to Djokovic and Rafa Nadal.
“It’s a great challenge, I’m not expected to win the match but if I play well I’m capable of it,” Murray told reporters.
With the Centre Court crowd cheering every point he won, Murray romped into a two-set lead before the showy Tsonga threw caution to the wind, staging a furious fightback that rocked Murray and threatened to set up a jittery fifth set.
At 4-4, 15-40 in the fourth set the match seemed to be slipping through Murray’s fingers but he held his nerve, and his serve, and three games later victory was his after an agonising wait while the Hawkeye screen showed his winning forehand was true.
Tears in his eyes, Murray pointed the sky as the crowd roared their approval and coach Ivan Lendl, who spent the match impassive in the players’ box, nodding his approval.
“Bit of relief, excitement, it’s tough to explain. It was such a close match,” Murray, whose eyes are now fixed on emulating Fred Perry’s 1936 landmark triumph at the All England Club - a bronze statue of whom in the grounds provides a permanent reminder of his place in British tennis folklore.
“I’ve just got to keep it together for the final. It will be one of the biggest matches of my life.”
Tsonga, who was doubled up in pain by a low blow to his nether regions from a point-blank Murray forehand when he was serving for the third set at 5-3, endeared himself to the home fans again after a stunning fightback.
Although he had a dose of reality for Murray Mania.
“It’s going to be tough for Andy because he needs to recover from the last match and this match against me. He looked pretty tired at the end, so I don’t know how he will be physically,” the engaging Tsonga told reporters.
“I think you have to play your best tennis all the way through (against Federer), because he’s an unbelievable player on grass. He’s really relaxed and the balls go really fast.”
Federer almost lost in the third round to Frenchman Julien Benneteau and had back trouble against Xavier Malisse in the fourth but against Djokovic he hit the heights.
Many thought his haul of grand slam titles had ended at 16, but after a two-hour 19 minute victory to snap a three-match losing streak against the Serb, few would bet against him breaking Murray’s heart for a third time in a grand slam final.
Should he beat Murray he would become the first 30 something to win the men’s title here since Arthur Ashe in 1975.
“All I hoped for was a good match from me, to be quite honest, to give myself a chance to be in the finals, have a shot at the trophy again,” said Federer, who needs one more to match the seven of Pete Sampras and whose record 286-week occupation of the world’s top ranking he would also equal.
“There’s a lot on the line for me. I’m not denying that. I have a lot of pressure. I’m looking forward to that.
“Now I have a chance at world number one, at the title again all at once.”
Federer and Djokovic set a frenetic pace under the Centre Court roof, closed after heavy morning rain in London, as the first two sets were shared in less than an hour.
It was only then that the match came alive with the two great champions providing arguably the best set of the championships so far.
Both players had chances to break serve after a series of mind-boggling rallies but it was Federer who struck in the 10th game as Djokovic blazed a smash long at 15-30. The top-seeded Serb saved the first set point but Federer sealed it at the second attempt, ending a 20-stroke exchange with a smash.
“We barely had rallies in the first couple of sets,” Federer said. “I was able to be very aggressive, particularly once I did get into the third set where I thought we both played our very best. Looking back, that was obviously the key to the match.”
It proved a good day for British tennis with Jonathan Marray becoming the first Briton to reach the men’s doubles final at Wimbledon in 52 years after he and partner Frederik Nielsen overcame defending champions Mike and Bob Bryan.