Murray faces giant leap as Wimbledon really begins
They don't put up statues for those who have a strong first week of the Wimbledon fortnight, for the seeds who duff up the sport's under-class before the Middle Sunday.
If Andy Murray's first three rounds of this summer's Championships passed off without any dramas - whether melo-, psycho-, or any other variety - and his tennis could hardly have been improved on, there's no doubt he was helped by the kindest of first-week draws. No one on the Hill, or in the shires, should be getting ahead of themselves. To retain his title, to keep that golden cup under British ownership, Murray is going to have to find a way past some extraordinarily gifted opponents.
Anyone with ambitions of winning this tournament appreciates that the first and second weeks of the Wimbledon fortnight are two entirely different experiences (you could go so far as to suggest that they are almost two distinct tournaments, separated by south-west London's holy day of rest, the competition-free Middle Sunday).
But, for Murray this summer, there's going to be a giant leap between week one and week two, starting with Monday's fourth-round encounter with Kevin Anderson, a 6ft 8in South African with a serve that could have you watching the match through your fingers. Should Murray progress to the quarterfinals, he would expect to find himself playing against Grigor Dimitrov, the king of Queen's Club a couple of weeks ago, and a Bulgarian who is widely regarded as the next big thing in men's tennis.
And if the tournament goes with the rankings, Murray's semi-final opponent will be Novak Djokovic, the top seed, in a repeat of last year's final. Beat Djokovic, and he would almost certainly find himself facing Rafa Nadal or Roger Federer in Sunday's final.
"There's a big jump up now for Murray - there's a huge difference in opposition for him," Mats Wilander, a former world No.1, and a winner of seven grand slam singles titles, said in an interview with ESPN. "It's been easy going for Murray, and if I was him I would be very pleased with how the first week went, but he wasn't really threatened in his first three matches, and now he's got a tough draw."
Of the big four beasts in tennis - Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Murray - it was the Scot who had the gentlest of paths through the first week. Now he appears to have the hardest route to the Champions' Dinner. Be in no doubt; Murray is facing a much rougher passage to the final than he did last summer when he became the first British man for 77 years to win a Wimbledon singles title.
A year ago, he beat Russia's Mikhail Youzhny in the fourth round, before overcoming Spain's Fernando Verdasco, then ranked outside the top 50, in the quarter-finals, and then Poland's Jerzy Janowicz, who was appearing in his first grand slam semi-final, in the last four.
"Murray has been looking a bit more relaxed than I thought he was going to be. He's playing well. I thought he would be looking a bit more tense, but, then again, he hasn't had a close match yet. Let's see how he's going to react when he has his first close match," Wilander said of Murray, who defeated Belgium's David Goffin in his opening match before pulverising Slovenia's Blaz Rola and then Spain's Roberto Bautista-Agut in his next two appearances.
Murray is one of the best returners of serve in tennis; he is going to need those skills against Anderson. "Murray will have to play aggressive tennis against Anderson - otherwise he will lose," Wilander, who is presenting Live@Wimbledon with Annabel Croft this fortnight, told me. "That's going to be a test. Anderson is tough. Anderson has got a big serve, so Murray will be trying to hold his own serve with the pressure on."
The possibility of a Murray-Dimitrov quarter-final excites Wilander. "That would be an unbelievable match. I think that's the match that everyone wants to see. Or at least all of us former players who like to see a little bit of variety want to watch that match," said Wilander.
"I don't think you should just be looking at the big four and saying that one of those players is going to win this year's title. You shouldn't be looking at four players, but at five. You can't put those four ahead of Dimitrov. He has as big a chance of winning this title as the other guys. He's going to improve with every match he plays.
"We know how high the other guys can jump, but Dimitrov might be able to jump higher than all of them. We don't know yet. He's not going to come out and play badly."
Perhaps, Wilander said, Murray is "more of a favourite now than he was when the tournament started". "If Federer and Murray keep on playing the same way they've been playing, they have a chance of winning the tournament. If Djokovic and Nadal keep on playing at the same level they have been playing, then most probably they don't have a chance of winning. But Nadal and Djokovic always improve during a tournament," said Wilander.
The Wimbledon champion's first week was close to perfection. "Murray is where he wants to be," said Wilander.
Now for Part Two.
Mark Hodgkinson is the author of 'Lendl: The Man Who Made Murray' and is writing for ESPN throughout Wimbledon