Bud Collins

Murray caught in the line of fire

A dragon named Nadal ends potentially fabled run

By Bud Collins
Globe Correspondent / July 2, 2011

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LONDON - The centuries-old tale of Saint George and the Dragon is a popular item in this town. After all, the heroic George is the patron saint of England, and dragons keep their distance.

Anyway, yesterday seemed perfect for an updated rerun. The local tennis Cathedral called Wimbledon was jammed with 14,979 parishioners, and the anti-dragon element was out in loud, enthusiastic force, rallying behind their man, but fearing the fire-breathing dragon. Could they hope to cripple and discard the spiky-spined monster? Well, they would try, as the reward for success would be a place in tomorrow’s Wimbledon men’s final.

All right, to rewrite the theme, we have a slightly different cast. The homeboy Andy Murray is Saint George, protecting his people against the wily Dragon, Spaniard Rafael Nadal. (OK, I know Andy is a Scotsman, but he won’t mind accepting a leading role among the English as he does on a tennis court.)

So there he was yesterday afternoon, Saint George in sneakers, determined to chase the Dragon out of Centre Court.

“He was beating me, playing better than me,’’ worried the Dragon Nadal. “He was waving his racket like a sword, and we dragons, no matter how tough we are, can be intimidated by swords in skilled hands. We monsters don’t care for Saint George in any disguise.’’

As the first hour of their conflict concluded with Saint George ahead, 7-5, the anti-dragons were screaming with joy. Their guy was calm and dangerous. He was taking the balls early and smoking the Dragon with deep, angled forehands. His serve was well placed, his volleying sharp while he kept Nadal on the run.

This was true to the legend. Saint George was conquering the Dragon, and standing tall, holding serve to 5-4 in the opening set. Then to 6-5, when the saint aced his way through two deuces. “Curses,’’ yipped the Dragon, following by “Ouch!’’ as he was broken by a forehand return setting up an overhead smash. The Brit Murray in saintly robes had the first set, 7-5, with only two to go to bump into Novak Djokovic with the long-sought championship at stake.

However (and it’s a huge however) the Dragon Nadal tore up the script and went his own way to show everybody that he’s the best in the universe. Instead of being slain by Saint George, the dragon became sword-proof and moved into the title round with a shot at winning his 11th major singles prize.

Murray and Nadal agreed that the match turned toward the Spaniard in the fifth game of the second set. Murray blew two easy shots, a forehand and an overhead, and was broken for the first time on his way to Nadal’s 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 victory, Rafa’s 20th straight Wimbledon singles win.

But easy shots? Nothing is really easy against Nadal. He makes you dizzy with all that spin, volleys meticulously if not frequently, and can run down the lowest balls, turning them into winners. “I play best when I’m behind,’’ he says, although he isn’t often in the rear. His good-night shot was an old favorite - the inside-out forehand from the far right.

So it’s the same old, same old for Murray, who lost in the semis for the third straight year. He was brilliant at times, but “I made too many mistakes.’’ Broken for the first time, he got caught in a seven-game run during which Nadal was very dragonish, taking himself to 2-0 in the third set, and out of reach.

The gifted Jo-Wilfried Tsonga slumped after his quarterfinal masterpiece, flooring Roger Federer. He served for the first set, served badly, and the new No. 1 (as of Monday) Djokovic chewed him up with quick-responding defense, returns that kept the up-and-down Tsonga a defeated man, 7-6 (7-4), 6-2, 6-7 (9-11), 6-3. Since Tsonga had rebounded from two sets down to sting Federer, Djokovic was wary and avoided mistakes.

According to Blinky, the ATP computer, Djokovic is now No. 1 ahead of Nadal, even if Nadal wins Wimbledon. Curious, but I never trust computers.

Murray’s failure to rise above the semis keeps his nemesis from long ago in publicity. Saint Fred (alias Fred Perry) was the last Brit to win Wimbledon, 75 years ago. His name will get decent billing until Murray or somebody else eclipses his feats. Odd that nobody calls attention to the success of the British women at Wimbledon: Ann Jones won in 1969, Virginia Wade, the most recent champion in 1977. That is only 34 years ago.

Perhaps we’ll get word from Saint George advising Murray to get tougher on the dragons.