Jack Draper steps into the Wimbledon void as Andy Murray departs centre stage

Jack Draper celebrates a five-set win over Elias Ymer  (Getty Images)
Jack Draper celebrates a five-set win over Elias Ymer (Getty Images)

Under the roof on Centre Court, the symbolism felt a little too obvious. As Andy Murray departed the stage, forced to withdraw on the morning of his final Wimbledon singles match, up stepped Jack Draper, the new British No 1. And while a scrappy, often unconvincing five-set win over the qualifier Elias Ymer hardly felt like the triumphant start of a new era for British tennis at Wimbledon, it was reminiscent of something else. The Centre Court crowd had come for Murray – Draper said so himself – but still saw a display of heart and grit from the 22-year-old. As Murray proved countless times during his golden years, success at Wimbledon is built on such qualities.

It may have been a fitting tribute to his idol, but as Draper thumped a final serve out wide on match point and smacked a ball high into the rafters on Centre Court, this was a victory that was met with more relief and frustration than outright celebration. Clearly, a fifth-set decider was not the plan for the 29th seed Draper, expected to dispatch an opponent ranked outside the world’s top 200 who had only played two tour-level matches this year. He will be aiming higher after returning to the second round, against the former British No 1 and Wimbledon semi-finalist Cameron Norrie.

But it is not easy to follow the departure of Britain’s two-time champion and literally step into the void left by a legend of the sport. “I wouldn’t be here without Andy,” Draper said on Centre Court. “Such a guy off the court, so genuine, so kind, what a champion and what a competitor.” Yet here he was, stepping into those shoes. In what was a significant moment in his young career, faced with increased expectations and an opponent with nothing to lose, Draper emerged with a battling win to build on into the fortnight.

Draper’s game is not the finished product but it is built behind a big serve and a powerful left-handed forehand, all modelled to be aggressive. He is also a showman, a player confident and sure of his abilities. He finished with over 54 winners and a fine collection of shot-making, with forehands struck crisply, low balls flicked down the line, and improvised volleys up high. But the unforced errors also followed Draper throughout, with 40 in all, the backhand a repeating fault. This was far from the perfect showing but Draper always managed to respond.

Facing a difficult evening as the roof was closed on Centre Court, Draper brushed aside his wobbles and showed authority in the decider to finally break Ymer’s spirit.  He found improved depth, pushing for the break as he forced Ymer into awkward positions in his backhand corner, flashing a winner down the line to force three break points. As Ymer double-faulted to gift Draper the break, it was the daylight he required to finally pull away. Naturally, he will believe there is more to come.

Draper shakes hands with Ymer as the match finished after 9pm (Getty Images)
Draper shakes hands with Ymer as the match finished after 9pm (Getty Images)

Expectations, after all, are high, but while the heavy favourite against the world No 205 Ymer, any sort of win would have sufficed for Draper. Last year, the Briton watched most of Wimbledon from his sofa after injury ruled him out, but he has looked to leave those fitness issues behind him. Few players in the draw have enjoyed such an encouraging run into Wimbledon, as Draper displayed the improvements he has made to his game by securing his first ATP Tour title on the grass in Stuttgart, followed by a career-best win over Carlos Alcaraz at Queen’s. As he arrived at Wimbledon as Britain’s highest seed, this felt like the year where Draper was ready to compete.

But, as Ymer proved in the opening set and throughout, qualifiers can be dangerous. In SW19, the 28-year-old won three matches in a row to reach the main draw, where he carried on that form to take the opening set. It was an unlikely start, but Draper found the crowd was behind him. As he levelled the match at a set all, he looked to have weathered the storm as he began to strike his forehand with more confidence. Ymer, however, never allowed Draper to cruise even as he clinched the third. Ymer was quick to pick up on any Draper lapses and served impressively to take the fourth.

Draper smashed up his racket after being taken to a decider but he steadied and managed to attack Ymer with renewed conviction in the fifth. Finally, after three hours and 17 minutes of toil, he earns the chance to go again.