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For all the tradition coursing through Wimbledon--the lords and ladies in the Royal Box, the queuing for grounds passes, the Pimm's cups with side orders of strawberries and cream--this may be the most hidebound ritual of them all: Everyone in Great Britain becomes irrationally optimistic at the prospect of a homegrown male winning the tournament for the first time since Fred Perry in 1936. And then, when the player doesn't prevail, the entire country reacts with disproportionate anguish. When Tim Henman reached the Wimbledon semifinals in 2002, a headline in the Daily Mirror read: NO PRESSURE, TIMBO, BUT CHOKE NOW AND WE'LL NEVER FORGIVE YOU. When Henman fell to eventual champion Lleyton Hewitt, the next day's headline was NATION OF LOSERS. Even the staid London Observer once described rooting for British players at Wimbledon as "a national spasm of patriotic agony."
Now, with Henman on the brink of retirement, it's the turn of young, self-deprecating Andy Murray to carry the expectations of an entire nation on his relatively scrawny shoulders. When Wimbledon begins on Monday, Murray will be the first-week story, generating more national interest than the other 255 competitors combined. And in the unlikely event that Murray pulls out on the eve of the tournament (tendon damage to his right wrist forced him to miss the French Open and the grass-court tuneups for Wimbledon), he will still be the story--proof that the big chair umpire in the sky really does have it in for Old Blighty.
If taking the Wimbledon title is a tall order so long as Roger Federer, the four-time defending champion, is in the draw, you could do worse than pin your hopes on Murray. This spring, a month before he turned 20, he infiltrated the top 10. He plays well on grass. Plus, he has already recorded a win over the mighty Federer, in August 2006. "I mean, if Roger plays his best, it's pfft," Murray says, mimicking the sound of his chances going up in smoke. "But I'll at least believe I have a chance."
While Henman cuts a classic British figure, with his patrician upbringing and clipped speaking manner--"tragically boring," London's Daily Telegraph once described him-- Murray represents the new, multicultural Britain. He is an irony-loving, hip-hop-listening, text-messaging bloke from Scotland. His accent is straight out of Trainspotting (tren-SPOOT-in'), but he spent years training in Spain. There's no Merchant-Ivory gentility to him. When a young woman recently sent her phone number to Murray's website, he wrote on his blog, "I'd appreciate a photo. You could be a complete stinker." If Henman is P.G. Wodehouse, Murray is Sacha Baron Cohen.
His combination of talent and irreverence has made him immensely popular in England. Companies seek him out for endorsements, to the tune of an estimated $20�million a year, and he's already been the subject of several biographies. Britain's Lawn Tennis Association, recognizing Murray's potential to make his sport cool, has allocated roughly $1 million a year to subsidize the salary of his coach, Brad Gilbert.
To call the marriage of Gilbert and Murray unlikely is to deal in understatement. A self-described "Jewish redneck" from Oakland, Gilbert, 45, is a nonstop kibitzer who found success coaching Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick in part because he spoke their language, leaning on locker-room clich�s and using U.S. sports figures as reference points. ( Gilbert is the only man in tennis who cites "the A's under Billy Martin" during a discussion of backhands and forehands.) When Gilbert filibusters, Murray often looks like a sullen child annoyed with his dad. "There are times when you don't listen as much as he'd like," says Murray, "but it's hard with someone who speaks as much as that."
While Gilbert is a serial optimist, Murray has Charlie Brown's disposition, slouching around under a private black cloud. His defeatist on-court body language has been such a sore point with Gilbert that the coach once said, "If you have to get mad at someone out there, get mad at me." Murray sometimes obliges, muttering a string of expletives at his coach. "Hey," says Gilbert, "if it helps him relax, I'm O.K. with it."
Regardless, the union has produced dramatic improvements in both Murray's game and his ranking. The player has access to Gilbert's first-rate tennis mind and his many connections. When Murray ventured to Gilbert's home in Northern California last winter, he ran sprints at a local park with Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson. Murray's improved stamina has enabled him to take more risks on the court; his improved strength has given his serve more juice. "Sure, it took a while to get used to [Brad's] methods," he says, "but everything's going in the right direction."
As for Gilbert, he left the comfort of the ESPN broadcast booth in part because he saw in Murray a 21st century version of himself: a cerebral, slightly neurotic player with no sense of entitlement and a burning desire to improve. "He's 20, but he's really much more mature than that," says Gilbert. "Other athletes are 20 going on 14."
Murray isn't the fastest player, but his court positioning and his anticipation save him extra steps. He isn't the most powerful ball striker, but his accuracy creates the illusion that his shots have extra pop. "He likes to confuse and conquer," says Roddick, who has lost to Murray four of the six times they've met. "He doesn't have that huge weapon, but he's such a smart player, it's like he turns your thinking backward."