WIMBLEDON, England — Brits can’t win and Roger Federer is over the hill. These are the narratives in play on Sunday as Andy Murray seeks to finally — or “FINALLY!!!“, as almost all the British newspaper headlines read today — break the 76-year drought for British men at Slams, at Wimbledon no less. And Roger Federer seeks his seventh Wimbledon title and a return to the No. 1 spot for the first time in more than two years. So much history is on the line as these two men contest the final of the 126th Championships that the pressure is enough to make the famed Centre Court roof collapse.
The story — at least as it feels from SW19 — is Andy Murray. Despite the fact that Murray is a huge underdog in this match — he hasn’t won a set in his only three Slam finals and is going up against a man who’s won the title six times, one of if not the greatest player on grass — the hopes and expectations weigh heavily on his shoulders. Because of that what if. What if Murray could do the unthinkable and take down Federer to notch his first career Slam title? What if Murray can transform Fred Perry from a ghost reminding the All England Club of 76 years of futility into a a tennis legend to be celebrated as he should be?
Standing in Murray’s way is a rejuvenated Federer, who ousted the defending champion and world No. 1 in the semifinals, beating Novak Djokovic with surprising ease. That win means Federer can recapture No. 1 with the title and tie Pete Sampras and William Renshaw for the most all-time Wimbledon titles with seven. Returning to the No. 1 ranking would also set him even with Pete Sampras for total number of weeks at No. 1 and he’ll be the second oldest man to hold the top spot (trailing only to Andre Agassi, who accomplished the feat at 33).
For those who don’t follow the sport on a weekly basis, Federer’s potential rise to No. 1 could come as a shock. After all, the Swiss great hasn’t won a Slam title since the 2010 Australian Open. But after his semifinal loss to Djokovic at last year’s U.S. Open, Federer won 17-straight matches to end the season and he continued that form through 2012. His primary nemesis, Rafael Nadal, stopped him at the Australian Open and Djokovic proved his foil at the French Open. But here, on the surface that allows his weapons to flourish, he’s been unstoppable. Aside from a back problem that hampered him in his fourth round match against Xavier Malisse, Federer has looked like his old self. His serve has been as effective as ever and he’s moving beautifully to the ball, cutting off the angles, and hitting over his backhand with searing efficacy.
Murray is one of only two men who have a winning record over Federer. Along with Rafael Nadal, Murray leads Federer 8-7 in their head-to-head, though the matches have all been on hard courts. This will be their first match on grass and while you’d be tempted to boil down the match analysis to Federer’s offense vs. Murray’s defense, the reality is that this match should showcase either Murray’s continued evolution into a more offensive minded counter-puncher or, once-again, cement his reputation as a man who simply freezes on the grandest of stages.
So as much as this match, at least on paper, seems to be one easy step along Federer’s return to the top, all eyes will be on Murray. How will he compete? Will he rise to the occasion and play the way coach Ivan Lendl has been pushing him to play. Will he take his chances, embrace the moment, and play with the freedom that allows his creative shot-making to reach full flow? Even if he does all of those things there’s no guarantee that he can take three sets off Federer here. But if the nerves make his legs heavy, he comes out flat, and gets blown off the court — as he has in his last three Slam finals — the narrative continues.
British hero or dour Scot. We’ll see on Sunday.