Murray shows flickers of former self


LONDON -- A year ago here, he blazed across the British sky like Halley's comet and, as it turned out, his majestic achievement was similarly (and eerily) rare.

Andy Murray became the first homegrown man to capture the Wimbledon title since Fred Perry, some 77 years earlier. The famous fireball -- which next comes around in 2061 -- makes an earthly appearance every 75 years or so.

It was the very thing that Murray and tennis fans from this island nation ached for, but by the end of last summer the championship had been relegated to history. The ensuing months were not all that Murray could have hoped for. He had three relatively lackluster outings in North America, then retired for the season after undergoing back surgery.

This year he failed to advance past the quarterfinals in any of his first nine tournaments before the French Open, but in Paris, Murray showed flickers of his former self. He won five matches before exiting meekly in the semifinals, winning only six games against eventual champion Rafael Nadal.

But here on the yawning lawns of the All England Club, the 27-year-old Murray finds himself back in a comfortable place, on Centre Court of all places. The stage was once too big even to contemplate, but now one suspects he might even enjoy these romps.

"I feel nervous, which is good," Murray said Sunday. "I like that."

A day later, the first of the seven potential steps of his defense went smoothly, as Murray clocked David Goffin, 6-1, 6-4, 7-5. It was Murray's 450th ATP World Tour victory.

His game was as pristine as the gorgeous emerald grass under his feet -- a surface that previously had been untouched by scrambling sneakers.

"The grass is very lush," Murray said in his postmatch news conference. "No bad bounces or anything. It was perfect.

"I played very well. I hit the ball clean from the beginning of the match."

Goffin, a 23-year-old from Belgium who looks 10 years younger, was able to create only two break opportunities -- and failed to cash either of them. Ranked 104th, Goffin was bidding to become the lowest-ranked player to beat Murray at a Grand Slam. It didn't come close to happening for Goffin, who is developing a curious history in these events. After reaching the fourth round in his very first Grand Slam, two years ago at Roland Garros, and then the third round here, Goffin has gone out in the first round in each of the seven majors since.

When Murray walked out onto Centre Court, he was greeted with a rousing standing ovation, prompting a smile when it kept rippling through the stadium.

"Local boy, is he?" a wry scribe asked his neighbor in the press section.

Later Murray said: "Yeah, enjoyed it for the walk to the chair. And then when I sat down, it was time to get on with business." It took Murray all of eight minutes to gain control of the match; he first broke Goffin when a forehand was slapped long, and he soon settled into a nice rhythm. One game later, Murray fell awkwardly, landing on his behind. The crowd gasped as one, but Murray scrambled to his feet and stroked a nonchalant forehand that Goffin sent into the net.

Watching from his box was his mother, Judy, who helped teach him the game -- as well as another woman who will presumably be his guide for the near future. With only 10 days of working together on grass, Amelie Mauresmo hasn't been with Murray long enough to effect any great change in his approach, but she has already been the target of a number of strikes from afar. Virginia Wade, the last British woman to win the Wimbledon title (1977), sniped at Murray's choice to succeed Ivan Lendl, calling the two-time Grand Slam singles champion "a little fragile mentally."

Murray said he wasn't surprised at her less-than-charitable comments but declined to elaborate. (Wade famously called him a "drama queen" after he played through a back spasm at the French Open two years ago.)

Murray and Mauresmo had a private dinner last week, when he was playing at Queen's in London, and the 2006 Wimbledon champion had some advice for Murray on his return: Savor the moment.

"I spoke to her a little bit about it and asked her how she dealt with it," Murray said. "One of the things she said was she tried to take in the atmosphere and the experience of walking out on the court as the defending champion. You never know if you'll get the chance to do it again.

"I've enjoyed spending time with her. She's a very calm person the way she speaks and everything, the way she explains things. It's been good so far."

Ditto for his return journey that could, in a best-case scenario, bring back-to-back flashes of a brilliant light to Britain.