The sun set on the long-suffering hopes of British tennis Thursday at Wimbledon and, within the span of a wild afternoon, rose again, setting off a euphoric celebration among the record crowd of 42,228.
They packed the 13,802 seats ringing Center Court and smothered the turf on "Henman Hill," the grassy bank facing a giant TV screen that transmits the featured matches to thousands of ticketless fans whose Wimbledon experience lives and dies each year with the results of British No. 1 Tim Henman.
Henman didn't just simply disappoint them again this year; he crushed their spirits, suffering his worst Wimbledon defeat in 10 years as he was bounced by the world's 152nd-ranked player, Russia's Dmitry Tursunov, 3-6, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, 8-6. It was the first time since 1995 that Henman, who was seeded sixth, failed to advance to Wimbledon's third round. And at 30, he is running out of chances to win the title he covets most.
Within 10 minutes of Henman's shocking defeat, a lanky Scottish teenager strode onto Court 1 carrying a massive racket bag in his hand and all that remained of Britain's pride on his shoulders. And 18-year-old Andy Murray, who only earned his spot in the draw by virtue of a "wild card," more than did his part to salve Britain's wounds, upsetting heavily favored Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, and touching off a wild celebration on the normally staid grounds.
Murray had lobbied Wimbledon officials hard for the chance to play on a Wimbledon show court this fortnight -- pretty cheeky for a youngster making his Grand Slam debut. But whatever Murray's shortcomings, lack of confidence isn't one of them. Ranked 312th in the world (who knew rankings went so low?), Murray got his wish after sailing past his first-round opponent in straight sets before an overflow audience on a lowly side court.
On Thursday, he got a date with the seasoned Stepanek, the tournament's No. 14 seed, on Court 1. And from the outset, he played as if both the stage and the moment were his destiny. Adding to his drive was the knowledge that Henman had fallen 10 minutes earlier, leaving him the sole Brit in the tournament.
"I really wanted to win because, obviously, it wouldn't be so good for the support if there was no one left," Murray said. "I think I went out and did my job pretty well."
The efforts of French Open champion Rafael Nadal of Spain weren't rewarded as handsomely. Nadal had proven himself the master of clay earlier this season, winning every tournament he entered, including his first Grand Slam, on the tricky surface. But he has more work to do to get comfortable on grass, as he has conceded since arriving at Wimbledon, and fell to Gilles Muller of Luxembourg, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Nadal also is working hard on his English, studying two hours each night to better accommodate the interview requests that have poured in since his victory at Roland Garros. Asked what his plans were following Wimbledon (he is still alive in doubles), Nadal said: "I am a little bit tired. I don't have day offs because I play every day, every day. I think I need disconnect. 'Disconnect' -- is good? I need disconnect a little bit to recharge the batteries, no?"
Americans Venus and Serena Williams advanced despite a rash of errors. Venus defeated Nicole Pratt, 7-5, 6-3, while Serena struggled early before subduing Italian qualifier Mara Santangelo, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2.
Defending champion Maria Sharapova was merciless in dismantling 15-year-old Sesil Karatancheva of Bulgaria, 6-0, 6-1. The match lasted just 46 minutes. The crowd cheered wildly when Karatancheva won her first point after falling behind 0-3 in the second set, and their support made the Bulgarian blush, then cover her face and shed a few tears.
Asked later if she felt empathy, Sharapova said flatly: "No. It's hard to feel sorry for your opponents. Unfortunately, this is an individual sport."
Empathy for Henman, however, abounded after his inexplicable loss to an inferior player. The Brit, who needed five sets to slog through his first-round match, fended off two match points in the fifth set on Thursday. But Tursunov refused to crumple to the favorite.
"Yeah, it's disappointing," said Henman, who, out of fresh tactics, tried swearing in an attempt to get himself fired up for the comeback. "It's tough to take." But he bristled when a reporter asked if he had entertained thoughts of quitting the sport.
"I would think about it," he told the roomful of reporters, "if all of you who are ninth best in the world and below quit with me. But there wouldn't be many of you left, would there?"
Murray was quick to defend Henman during his postmatch interview, noting that Henman had appeared in four semifinals and four quarterfinals in eight of the previous nine Wimbledon's -- an accomplishment he described as "incredible."
"He doesn't get enough credit for it," Murray said.