LONDON (Reuters) - There will be an unfamiliar whiff of British success in the air at Wimbledon this year when Andy Murray, and thousands of patriotic fans, will try to stop the party-pooping antics of champions Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal.
Tennis’s so called ‘Big Three’ have lorded over Wimbledon ever since Federer won the first of his record-equaling seven titles in 2003, slamming the door shut on any pretender who threatened to gatecrash their invitation-only, VIP party.
Eleven months ago, however, Murray demonstrated that peering in from the outside year after year was no longer an option as he smashed the gilded cage the trio had built around themselves by winning an Olympic gold on the hallowed turf.
Murray’s euphoric triumph at the All England Club, albeit at the London Games, offered a glimmer of hope that an end might finally be in sight for Britain’s interminable wait for a home-grown men’s champion at Wimbledon.
That hope intensified tenfold when Murray hoisted the U.S. Open trophy weeks later with a heart-pumping, nerve-jangling, five-set win over Serbian Djokovic at Flushing Meadows.
That win means that for the first time in 77 years a reigning British male grand-slam champion will amble in to the manicured grounds in southwest London when the club throws open its immaculately-painted gates for the start of the 2013 championships on Monday.
The last time such an event occurred was when Fred Perry showed up in 1936 to complete his hat-trick of Wimbledon wins before turning professional.
Since Perry captured the last of his eight grand-slam titles at the 1936 U.S. Championships, 286 majors had come and gone without a British men’s champion in sight.
Winners emerged from Egypt to Ecuador, from Romania to Mexico, from Croatia to South Africa, from Hungary to Argentina; 22 different nations ruled over all and sundry.
The country that hosts the most famous tennis tournament in the world, however, had effectively become a laughing stock for failing to produce a male champion for more than three-quarters of a century.
“What is it? Like, 150,000 years?,” Swiss Federer quipped on the eve of beating Murray at the 2010 Melbourne Park final.
Murray finally laid those jokes to rest last September and while he is now a bona fide member of what has turned into the ‘Big Four’ of tennis, experts sounded a word of caution to those expecting a glorious British finale.
“Every year that he doesn’t win it, there is more and more pressure on Andy Murray, so it depends on his nerves,” former Wimbledon champion Chris Evert said during an ESPN conference call.
The famous four have now won 32 of the last 33 grand slams - it would have been all 33 if Federer had not blown a two-sets-to-one lead against Juan Martin del Potro in the 2009 U.S. Open final - and so far no-one has come close to ending that reign.
Evert’s fellow American John McEnroe said that only the very brave would rule out the chances of world number one Djokovic, 17-times grand slam champion Federer and 2008 and 2010 winner Nadal.
At 31, Federer’s silky grasscourt craft can still leave younger rivals huffing and puffing, as the luckless Mischa Zverev discovered during a 6-0 6-0 demolition in Halle last week.
Iron-man Djokovic, winner in 2011, relishes the challenge of leaving his opponents gasping while Nadal will be eager to show that last year’s astonishing second-round humbling was just a blip in his glittering career.
“The three of them have been unbelievably dominant. They’ve been incredibly successful. If anything, it should be an incentive to the other guys to break in to the mix. If these guys are too good then more power to them,” McEnroe said.
“I would pick Djokovic (as number) one (for the title) and Murray two because he will be a little hungrier having not played the French (Open, through injury).
“Then Roger, because he’s still got such a great game for grass but it’s so tough to win it back-to-back, especially at his age. Then Rafa as he can’t impose his will as easily as he can on claycourts, so I would put him a close fourth.”
McEnroe describes eight-times Roland Garros victor Nadal as the “ultimate nightmare on clay” but his presence at Wimbledon could also provide some sleepless nights for his main rivals.
The quartet have long become accustomed to meeting in the last four or in the final of tournaments but with Nadal seeded fifth this year, behind fellow Spaniard David Ferrer, a blockbuster clash could be in the offing as early as the quarter-finals.
Apart from the front runners, players such as Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Del Potro and Ferrer all possess the talent and the weapons that could have made them multiple grand-slam winners in any other era. In 2013, they have to be satisfied with being bit-part players in what McEnroe called “a golden era which we should enjoy for as long as we can”.
Editing by Clare Fallon