Wimbledon, England. In 2010, Novak Djokovic led unseeded Serbia to a Davis Cup title in front of an adoring crowd in Belgrade, setting the stage for his phenomenal run in the following year. The crowd won’t be on his side at Wimbledon, where Andy Murray awaits in the Olympic semifinals.
The winner of the match on Friday is guaranteed at least a silver medal. For Djokovic, there is even more at stake.
If Djokovic beats Murray, and Roger Federer loses to Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina in the other semifinal, the Serb will reclaim the world No. 1 ranking from the Swiss, who took it over after his record-tying seventh title at Wimbledon last month. If Djokovic and Federer play each other in either the gold or bronze medal match, the winner will be the No. 1.
In the women’s semifinals, No. 1 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus plays Serena Williams of the United States, and Maria Sharapova faces another Russian, Maria Kirilenko.
“I’m really happy that one of us will have a chance to go for gold,” said Sharapova, who defeated Kim Clijsters of Belgium 6-2, 7-5.
No. 2-seeded Djokovic advanced Thursday by beating No. 5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France, 6-1, 7-5, while Murray delighted a crowd that included Prince William and wife Kate by defeating No. 11 Nicolas Almagro of Spain, 6-4, 6-1. Fans whooped and a some waved small British flags. The royals joined gamely in the so-called Mexican Wave that circled among the spectators in the stands.
“He’s a home favorite, a hero, somebody that carries the tennis in Great Britain,” Djokovic said. “The whole nation will be watching and hoping he can get to the finals and win a medal for his country.”
Seeded No. 3, Murray was runner-up to Federer at Wimbledon. Djokovic won Wimbledon in 2011, along with the Australian Open and the US Open, and was a bronze medalist in Beijing in 2008. He defended his title in Melbourne this year.
Djokovic said he was accustomed to playing before crowds that supported his opponent, not only in Davis Cup but also against Federer and Rafael Nadal, whom he described as the “most dominant players, most recognizable tennis players in the last eight or 10 years.”
Conversely, he said he did not expect Murray to falter mentally because the expectations of the home crowd are so intense. Murray’s annual runs at Wimbledon, along with those of Tim Henman before him, are the subject of speculation about whether Britain will ever celebrate another male title winner. Fred Perry was the last, in 1936.
“I’m sure that it’s tough for him, definitely, that he has lost four Grand Slam finals. Even though, in my opinion, he deserved to win the last one,” Djokovic said of Murray. “The pressure is always part of the game. It’s part of our profession, as well. We have to get used to it.”
The men are playing best-of-three-set matches at the Olympics, in contrast to the usual best-of-five set format at Grand Slam events. Only the men’s final will be a best-of-five set match. The event, however, is just nine days, while Grand Slam tournaments last two weeks.
Djokovic and Murray, as well as Federer, lost in men’s doubles at the Olympics; Murray is also playing mixed doubles.
“There’s no sort of rest mentally. Obviously, when you’re playing Wimbledon, you get the day off. That always helps because you can relax a little bit and get away from it,” Murray said. “Because it is such a quick match with the three sets (at the Olympics), any mistake can cost you. I mean, physically it’s easier. Mentally, I don’t know whether it’s easier or not. It’s just different.”
Murray showed flair against Almagro, chasing a shot that clipped the net cord and bounced at an extreme angle off the side of the court, past the net post. The Briton ran wide, and with the net no longer in the way, he hit a forehand low to the ground, past Almagro.
Tennis was reintroduced to the Olympics in Seoul in 1988 after a 64-year absence, amid some skepticism about whether it should be included with track and field, swimming and other sports that were the staples of the games. The tennis event often produced some early upsets and lower-ranked winners, possibly reflecting how the top players focused on the four Grand Slam tournaments.
Still, Andre Agassi and Rafael Nadal are among gold medal winners in singles. Federer won the gold medal in doubles in 2008, though he and partner Stanislas Wawrinka were eliminated this year. Federer defeated John Isner, 6-4, 7-6 (5), to set up the match with del Potro.
“I know there’s a lot of people that think that maybe tennis isn’t necessarily an Olympic sport,” Murray said. “But I know how much I care about it and how much I want to do well here and want to try to win a medal, be part of the team and try and help Britain’s medal count if I can.”
He said: “It’s a different sort of emotion when you’re on the court.”