"When I went behind, the crowd definitely got right behind me and it made a huge, huge difference." - Andy Murray, to reporters at Wimbledon on Wednesday
Uh oh, here we go again with one of the unjust quirks of sport evolution. Murray has a home Grand Slam to play in. The excellent Mr. Fernando Verdasco, who just put Murray through peril, never will.
That means you might just cringe sitting at Centre Court at Wimbledon while a Brit plays, or at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York while an American plays. I know I have. At Centre Court in 2008 as a fledgling Murray clambered out of a two-set chasm to beat Richard Gasquet and the whole theatre seemed to push Murray right along, I began to feel squeamish. The partisanship seemed to stray past over-the-top and lurch toward grotesque.
That feeling came not from the remnants of an English breakfast but a sense of the irreparable lopsidedness of the four-Slam system, laced with a fresh layer of respect for all those gamers who hail from neither Australia nor France nor the United Kingdom nor the United States.
They're perpetual guests at the biggest stops.
At least Mr. Gasquet, from France, does have a home Slam to ply. Most, of course, do not. In a sport of tiny margins, you might wonder as to the possible effects for someone like Juan Martin del Potro, who starts off with travel just about interplanetary as he departs Tandil, Argentina, toward Grand Slams that happen 7,030 and 7,051 and 7,096 and 5,479 miles from his residence.
Luckily, though, the world has some other quirks, and that is where this bit of thinking starts a good veer.
Forty-six of the 54 Grand Slam titles so far this century, male and female, have gone to people who entered the tournament through the foreign-passport line. No Australian man has won the Australian Open since Mark Edmondson in 1976 (with only one finalist since 1987); no Frenchman has won the French Open since Yannick Noah in 1983 (with zero finalists since 1988); no English or British man has won Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936 (with zero finalists from 1938 to Murray in 2012); and no American male has won the U.S. Open since Andy Roddick in 2003 (with two finalists since). That racks up to 154 years of polite cheers for visiting men lifting trophies, unless you count Roger Federer, beloved citizen of Earth and seemingly all its nationalities.
No Australian woman has won the Australian Open since Chris O'Neil in 1978 (with zero finalists since); no Frenchwoman has won the French Open since Mary Pierce in 2000 (with a smidgen of an asterisk there given her American father and U.S. childhood to age 13, and a reminder she quelled a 33-year drought there); and no English or British woman has won Wimbledon since Virginia Wade in 1977 (with zero finalists since).
No American woman has won the U.S. Open since Serena Williams last September 9, so there's that, but this phenomenon would be even more pronounced but for the Williams family and its five U.S. Open titles in the 2000s.
The built-in unfairness that proved "huge, huge" as Murray pushed past Verdasco from two sets down on Wednesday seems to get a fine counterbalance from the pressurized, home-country whammy.
Australia provides a graphic case.
If you went around the world and tallied, you might find that Australians prefer winning to losing by a margin wider than any other peoples. They're probably the studliest athletic nation on Earth. Long has there hovered the notion, then, that such weight overtaxes tennis shoulders that, as added inconvenience, labor from excessive want.
Lleyton Hewitt won a U.S. Open and a Wimbledon, then aimed hard into a 2005 Australian Open final that saw him fall in four sets to the mercurially ingenious Marat Safin. Afterward, Hewitt seemed to straddle the home-country possibilities when he said, "I don't feel the pressure anymore I don't think," but also added, "Obviously I'd like a few more Australian players to be in the second week of the tournament to take a little bit of that load." By 2005, as a former No. 1 player in the world, he probably had solved the whammy but lacked the sufficient offense.
In the run-up to the 2012 Australian Open, Sam Stosur reigned as 2011 U.S. Open champion, having beaten Serena Williams in a sterling display at Arthur Ashe, 9,641 miles from home. That made Stosur the first Australian female Grand Slam champion in 31 years. Throwing everything into that ensuing Australian summer (January), she spilled out immediately, first round, two sets, to Sorana Cirstea, the one-time French Open quarterfinalist.
"I did everything I could to try and give myself a good opportunity," she said thereafter, and said with candor, "Physically, I think it is easy to see that you tighten up, your shoulders get tight, you don't hit through the ball. When anyone's nervous, I think the first thing that goes is your footwork."
Come 2013, she went into the second round and up 5-2 in the third set, then lost all five closing games to Zheng Jie. "Crazy things start popping into your head," she said. Asked if "people in the supermarket" might ask her about the home-country hex, she drew laughs when she said, "I hope those people aren't going to ask me that."
Across the world at Wimbledon, a crowd just hugely, hugely helped Murray, but maybe the sinister side of the homeboy coin turned up in the BBC's post-match interview, aired on ESPN. Murray had to remind the interviewer of Verdasco's rarefied excellence at tennis because the interviewer seemed too preoccupied with Murray's early woe. Once you've reached 13 Grand Slam semifinals, the careless, crazy tide of opinion around you can perceive getting to a semifinal as rote rather than hard-as-hell. Maybe, to commit idealism here, the applause that stirred Murray also stirred justice.