2012 Olympics | July 27 - August 12
Posted: Thursday August 2, 2012 12:17PM ; Updated: Thursday August 2, 2012 12:18PM
Jon Wertheim
Jon Wertheim>INSIDE TENNIS

With a nation's pressure divided, Murray closing in on Olympic glory

Story Highlights

Andy Murray bounced Nicolas Almagro in straight sets to reach the Olympic semis

With British athletes at the Games, Murray has less pressure than at Wimbledon

Murray's just one win away from medaling, but has a tough test in Novak Djokovic

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Andy Murray Olympics
Andy Murray's game has improved with less pressure solely on him at the London Olympics.
Zumapress

WIMBLEDON, England -- Andy Murray knows the choreography by now. The clock may no longer be adorned with a Rolex logo -- the penalty for declining Olympic sponsorship -- but at the designated time, he takes Centre Court at the All England Club. The fans gather in the stands and on the sloped area that has all but officially been re-christened "Murray Mound" from "Henman Hill." The lower seats are filled with dignitaries, lords and royalty -- literally today, as William and Kate stopped by the All England Club. And a nation inhales.

Still, it's different this week. There are more than a hundred other international events being contested in the London area this week. The venerable BBC flits in and out of the tennis coverage. There are even empty seats at Centre Court.

Most important is that Murray finds himself playing high-stakes matches in Great Britain without being at the gravitational center of the national sports landscape. And as the attention has dispersed, so has the pressure on Murray. We're not at Wimbledon any more, and as he blazes through the Olympic tennis draw, there is no sense that he (all together now) "carries the weight of his homeland." There are other Brits to help shoulder the load. Adding to the ease, after a few nervous days, the U.K. has already won gold medals. So Murray is not further burdened by the task of snapping a drought.

Playing as if he didn't have a care in the world, Murray didn't so much as beat Nicolas Almagro today, he gave him a 59-minute lesson. Those questioning the "will-Andy-win-a-major-one-day" trope isn't an exercise in irrational optimism. The defense could offer today's match as Exhibit A. Murray never let Almagro -- no slouch of a player who hadn't dropped a set here in his first three matches -- into the match. The 6-4, 6-1 score was misleading in its closeness. "From my side of the court I played solid on serve," Murray told a small group of media members afterward, another difference between this week and Wimbledon. "The goal coming into the tournament was [to be on the medal stand]. It's nice to get that opportunity."

The next immediate opportunity will pit him against Novak Djokovic. While the Serb, a winner today over France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, is the higher seed, Murray may well be the favorite. Especially on grass. Especially with the partisan crowd that supports him without burdening.

They'll play the match tomorrow, still another difference between this event and Wimbledon. "Obviously when you're playing Wimbledon, you get the day off," says Murray. "That always helps because you can relax a little bit and get away from it."

Which, of course, is preposterous. He can't get away from it during Wimbledon. He turns on any channel and there's his mug. He buys a sandwich after leaving the court and it's front page news. Even his entourage become celebrities for the tournament, a full fortnight in the most recent case. Every storyline -- his parents' divorce, the Dunblane shootings -- are reheated and re-served.

This week? None of that. Murray is the crowd favorite. If he wins one more match and medals, it's big news. If he wins two more matches, he'll be knighted. But the light isn't as intense, nor is the heat. And that could make all the difference.

Mail Call

I'm not sure of your opinion of beach volleyball, but I've been very impressed by the fact that at the end of a match, the players shake the hands of all the officials including the lines persons. I think this would be great for tennis, do you agree?
--
Kent Anderson, New York

• Love it. The players obviously shake the chair umpire's hand after the match. But what about the all the other officials, hunched like football lineman for all those hours, peering to say where the balls land? We'll talk more about this in weeks to come, but I think a lot of strong and innovative ideas have come out of these Olympics.

I'm wondering who the best two-sport athletes are in professional tennis, particularly as it relates to Olympic sports. The ATP All Stars vs. Ft. Lauderdale Strikers Japan relief match showed that there's some soccer/football talent. But, is anyone really serious about a second sport? I do know Jarkko Nieminen's wife is competing in badminton.
--
Andrew, New York

• A friend of mine tells me that Mardy Fish has the hand-eye coordination and distance off the tee to be a professional golfer -- and, in all seriousness, compete on the senior tour eventually. The word from those who played in the soccer/football games is that Nadal could have been a pro had he chosen. And one of the former Swedes -- I want to say Thomas Johansson -- had pro-level squash skills. But I think we shouldn't restrict to men.

From Serena to Kim Clijsters to Wozniacki, it's easy to see a variety of WTA players succeeding in soccer, field hockey, lacrosse, etc. How about Serena as a fencer?

And the inverse could be a fun contest: What are the least likely sport combos? John Isner as a gymnast; Sharapova throwing the discus? Federer as a powerlifter? Venus as a boxer? Nadal doing rhythmic gymnastics?

Has there ever been any thought of doing a team competition at the Olympics a la gymnastics? Have the individual events in the first week and the team event in the second. I realize that it might be inconceivable for a player to take ANOTHER week off the tour (especially with the Rogers Cup happening DURING the second week), but always wondered if it was discussed.
--
Justin DePietropaolo, Chester Springs, Pa.

• The one hitch is that the distribution of talent is very uneven. Look at Swiss or Spanish men versus women. Look at Chinese women versus men. Tennis' calendar is cramped as it is. But the obvious play is for the ITF to realize that Davis Cup, as it current exists, is slinking into irrelevance and there must be a way to combine some the successful elements of the Olympics to improve the format.

Jon, can't it just be that Nadal's knees are actually really bothering him? Why be so cynical? I find it hard to believe that anyone as patriotic as Nadal would choose to sit out an Olympic games for strategic reasons.
--
Claire, Toronto

• As long as it stays between us, after getting a lot of mail about that discussion last week, I reread my answer and cringed. Wish I could "play a let" there. Anyone who watches Nadal play for five minutes will tell you his style is not conducive to optimal health. And anyone who spends five minutes with him, gets a sense of his level of patriotism.

I do think, though, that -- by accident of design -- taking this break will help him in the long-haul of the points chase. He gets some extra rest in time for the late summer and fall, a time of year when, historically, he hasn't ben at his best.

When you say "give me Harrison's passion" are you saying that there are American players who don't want to win as badly or who don't try as hard as he does?
--
Brandon, Chicago

• In a word: yes.

Why all the fuss over Ryan Harrison? An ill-tempered tennis player? STOP THE PRESSES! Alert Guinness!
--
Steve, Missouri

• Guinness the beer? Not an Olympic sponsor. For the next ten days it will be known as "Beverage No. 5."

So... when do you have time to sleep between watching matches, hanging out with Pat O'Brien, doing on the spot coverage around the venue and filing the odd baguette here and there? Do you have a staff of cub reporters at your call?
--
Jenny Christoffersen, Marietta, Ga.

• What is this word "sleep" you invoke?

• Matt Valdez, Fort Collins, Co.: "Maria Sharapova doesn't hold the monopoly on women shrieking in sports as this Tunisian fencer demonstrates at the Olympics."

 
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