The end when it came for Andy Murray was drawn-out, painful and not entirely unexpected. His quest for a third Wimbledon title evaporated on Centre Court on Wednesday when his aching hip finally gave up on him and Sam Querrey took full advantage of his injury to win their quarter-final 3-6, 6-4, 6-7 (4), 6-1, 6-1 to become the first American in the semi-finals here since Andy Roddick eight years ago.
“I didn’t start my best, just kept swinging away,” Querrey said immediately afterwards. “I’m going to enjoy this one a little bit longer, rest tomorrow and do my best to get ready for the semis.”
The defending champion moved like Hercules (Harold Steptoe’s horse, not the mythical strongman) in the two hours and 42 minutes it lasted. In the two short closing sets, he was powerless to change the direction or mood of the contest, so hobbled was he by his hip.
He was also bidding to retain his world No1 ranking and to join Johanna Konta in the semi-finals, the first British players to go this deep here in the Open era in the men's and women's draws. Now the top spot is up for grabs, and Konta shoulders the nation's hopes alone.
Murray said after beating Benoît Paire in the fourth round: “If I’m struggling and not moving well, it affects my performance maybe more than other guys who don’t rely on their movement as much.” That prognosis told the story of this quarter-final. It wasn’t so much that Querrey played out of his skin, but that Murray was rooted to the turf going sideways, hitting a lot of shots off one leg and serving way below his best.
He fought all the way to the end, as he always does, but there could be no denying that his hip was the problem as much as his tennis.
And on a dull afternoon, it had all started so brightly. Within three minutes, Murray was two sets up and Querrey had won just a single point, with the first of his 27 aces which took him to the top of the tournament table on 126. After seven minutes, Murray had raced to 3-0 with his second ace. Nevertheless, he might have suspected he would need the protection of that flying start if Querrey ever got his long right arm working – and he did.
The American had taken nearly 10 hours, 14 sets and four tie-breaks to get to the quarters; it had detained Murray eight hours 20 minutes for the loss of a single set – but the numbers and running score disguised a disturbing truth.
Serving at 4-2 up, Murray refused to chase down an routine lob that landed within his normal reach. While he might have been husbanding his resources for bigger battles to come, it looked more like he was guarding that mysterious hip injury.
He looked laboured with ball in hand and his second serve often dipped below 90mph; Querrey, however, was so far off the pace he could not cash in, and Murray sealed the first set in 28 minutes.
The sun was shining and the arena had finally filled; but there was a growing sense of concern in the crowd. Murray did not look at his energetic best.
Hope might have been stronger than expectation that Querrey would fall in a heap for him. But the world No28 – who put Novak Djokovic out in the fourth round last year, and this season beat David Goffin, Dominic Thiem, Nick Kyrgios and Rafael Nadal in one magical week in Acapulco – was inclined to hang around for a bit.
In the second frame, Querrey held to love in the ninth game with his ninth ace and at the third attempt broke to level at a set apiece. Then, as he has done so many times before, Murray sprang back to life in adversity, breaking and holding with some of his old magic. By the time he had returned in the third set to the 4-3 lead he held in the second, his game had transformed – but again he threw it away. Querrey broke for 5-all with a blistering crosscourt backhand – but lost the plot in the tie-break.
However, he wrote the script for the rest of the match. Querrey broke three times to wrap up the fourth set in 22 bewildering minutes, and the anxiety levels rose appreciably in Murray's box. Ivan Lendl and his team needed no reminding that the Scot had lost his last three five-set matches. His task, on one working leg, was now Herculean, but the weight was too much.
Querrey, one of the most affable and popular players on the Tour, steeled himself for the kill, finishing it with a 118mph ace beyond Murray’s right arm, which hung motionless by his side.