WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND — Fluent in four languages and equally at home in the Swiss Alps and Dubai’s opulent skyscrapers, Roger Federer says he enjoys taking on the local hero wherever on the globe tennis tournaments take him.
That fondness will be roundly tested Sunday, when Federer strides onto Wimbledon’s Centre Court to face Andy Murray, a 25-year-old Scottish sporting hero who has been 74 years in the making.
That’s how long it has been since a British man reached Wimbledon’s final. And Murray’s achievement, after three successive semifinal losses, has turned this nation on its head.
As one long-suffering English tennis fan exulted Saturday: “Andy Murray has put the Great back in Britain!”
The screaming headlines in London’s Saturday papers ranged from the triumphant “Finally!” and “Great Scot!” to the angst-ridden “Now Can He Finish the Job?” and “Tears before Fed-Time.” The latter was a reference to the joyful tears Murray shed upon defeating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in four sets Friday to earn the coveted Centre Court date with Federer, a six-time Wimbledon champion whom many consider the greatest to ever play the game.
“It’s a great challenge — one where I’m probably not expected to win the match,” Murray said despite his 8-7 record over the Swiss champion. “But it’s one that, if I play well, I’m capable of winning.”
Should the fourth-seeded Murray prevail, becoming the first British man to hoist Wimbledon’s trophy since Fred Perry in 1936, it might be too much for a country still giddy over the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and consumed with preparations for the London Olympics, which get under way July 27.
Perhaps the only Brit ambivalent about Murray’s march is London restaurateur Jimmy Prasad, who last week promised to feed all customers free at his buffet, Jimmy Spice’s, if the Scot claimed Wimbledon’s crown.
Within hours of Murray’s semifinal victory, Prime Minister David Cameron phoned with congratulation. Cameron’s famed residence, 10 Downing Street, will reportedly fly the Scottish Saltire alongside the Union Jack on Sunday as a show of support.
Speculation is rampant over who will be invited to the Royal Box. When Britain’s Virginia Wade won the Wimbledon’s women’s title in 1977, Queen Elizabeth was in attendance. She’s not expected Sunday, but the Duchess of Cambridge, the former Kate Middleton, is.
Ticket brokers are commanding staggering sums for even the poorest among Center Court’s 14,979 seats. The Times of London speculated that a choice seat could sell for 14,000 pounds, or roughly $22,000.
When Perry triumphed at Wimbledon, he won 10 pounds and a gold medal. Far more is at stake for Murray: 1,150,000 pounds (roughly $1.55 million) and the perpetual adulation of a nation.
Murray appears to be handling the pressure well, retreating to the protective bubble of his recently hired coach, Ivan Lendl, who holds eight major titles; mother Judy, his first coach; longtime girlfriend Kim Sears; and a team of hitting partners and physical therapists.
And he is enduring reporters’ questions with grace.
Federer has no less at stake.
A seventh Wimbledon title would equal the record of his idol, Pete Sampras. With it, the Swiss would vault from No. 3 to No. 1 in the world, matching Sampras’s record for total weeks spent atop the rankings (286).
A 17th major would also nudge Federer’s career record further from the plausible reach of this, any subsequent, generation.
“There’s a lot on the line for me, I’m not denying that,” Federer conceded after beating defending champion and top-ranked Novak Djokovic in four sets to advance to his first Wimbledon final since 2009. “I have a lot of pressure, as well. I’m looking forward to that. That’s what I work hard for.”
While the two have faced each other 15 times, they have never met on grass. And there is no surface better suited to Federer’s strengths — his deft footwork, strategically placed serves and low-bouncing slice off both wings.
Federer’s career grass-court record is 111-16. His career record in Grand Slam events is equally impressive, 243-36.
But among those 36 defeats, his loss to Djokovic in the semifinals of last September’s U.S. Open has lingered most. Federer squandered a two-sets-to-none lead and failed to convert two match points.
One month shy of his 31st birthday, Federer says he has worked extremely hard since that disappointment. So he has polished off five of his six opponents to date at Wimbledon in 2 hours 20 minutes or less, which is remarkably efficient for a best-of-five sets contest.
“Now I have a chance at world number one, at the title again all at once,” Federer said. “It’s a big match for me. I hope I can keep my nerve.”