Murray battles Tsonga - and weight of history
It was strangely quiet at Wimbledon on Thursday: in the normally garrulous queue, around the carefully shaved and plucked outside courts, among the gimlet-eyed touts hanging around Southfields tube station and on Centre Court itself.
Women's semi-finals day is often a little low-key, but this was something else - a calm before the storm, a collective deep breath, a final mercifully stress-free few hours before Andy Murray's latest and surely most inviting opportunity to reach the promised land of a Wimbledon singles final.
A pearl of sporting trivia popular on Twitter rather summed it all up: the last man to be beaten by a Briton in a Wimbledon semi-final died at the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942.
Murray will be battling that history and attendant sense of national pessimism as well as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga when he strides onto Centre on Friday afternoon.
No matter that he has beaten Tsonga in five of their six meetings, or that some bookmakers have him as short as 2-1 on to defeat the Frenchman once again. A nation simultaneously expects and fears the worst.
Murray Mania is usually taken to mean the hype that grips the media around this point in the championships. It could equally be used to describe the feverish experience of watching the man himself on court.
Tim Henman's Wimbledon campaigns used to leave partisan observers emotionally exhausted, fed through the mangler as he found a way to teeter on the brink of victory or duel with defeat at short quarter. You strapped yourself into the rollercoaster and hoped to enjoy the swoops and twists ahead.
There's something of the same with Murray, but with fewer giggles.
When Henman reached his four semi-finals here you had the sense of a player at the outer reaches of his optimum, maximising his talent and familiar conditions to get far closer to the old pot than we had a right to expect.
We demand more from Murray, a player blessed with a giddy array of shots, a track athlete's physique and a brain hard-wired for tactical supremacy.
When his game goes wrong it carries with it a sense of waste as well as regret. His backhand slice, simultaneously a wonderful weapon and blind indulgence, sums it up in a single shot. Every time one goes up a little piece of you dies: will this one land safe, or toss away a vital point?
Murray's relationship with the British sporting public, never straightforward, remains a puzzling one.
For every supporter who loves his flowing forehand and appreciates the bounty he is producing for British tennis in a time of otherwise near total famine, there is another who laments, however unjustly, his perceived inconsistencies on court and his taciturn persona off it.
No-one at Wimbledon on Thursday was going as far as saying they hoped he would lose. But there were plenty - from the Armed Forces servicemen on duty as stewards, to those revellers drinking by the giant screen, to the students working the food and merchandise concessions - happy to admit that they were yet to fall for Murray as they once did Tiger Tim.
It was a tale repeated among the touts. A straw poll of those loitering on Wimbledon Park Road, almost all of whom seemed to be wearing knock-off Lacoste polo shirts, answer to the name of Stan and hate eBay with a limitless passion, confirmed that business was not yet as lucrative as back in the day.
While black market tickets are in stiff demand, they are not hen's teeth. A monkey (£500 in non-tout terms) was securing a seat by the Centre Court rafters, with posh debentures coming in at four times that; those who were making deals were shelling out as much to witness Federer-Djokovic as Murray's fourth consecutive tilt in the last four.
For those who expect their sporting heroes to display the charisma of leading men as well as dazzle with their physical gifts, Murray's predisposition to monotone mutterings and a furrowed brow seem to make him harder to take to heart.
It's almost entirely unfair. In getting past an inspired David Ferrer in the quarter-finals Murray once again demonstrated enormous resolve and great skill under pressure. He has already achieved enough in his career so far to deserve a nation's grateful appreciation.
But this is British tennis, the most deluded of national sports, and this is Wimbledon, the least forgiving of sporting stages.
Lose to Nadal in consecutive Wimbledon semi-finals and no-one has much right to think any less of you. Lose to a man ranked below you, even in the last four and to a muscular maverick with a giant-killing reputation like Tsonga, and the critics and cynics will I-told-you-so until the Henman Hill fountains freeze over.
The semi-final against Tsonga represents Murray's best chance yet to convert those nonbelievers.
A showdown against Federer or Djokovic on Sunday would unite the nation in front of its televisions and laptops like little else in British sport. A victory would elevate him to a place few other British sportsmen could hope to inhabit.
And it is that prize, that possibility, that will make Friday afternoon such a ghastly, glorious nerve-shredder for all involved.