If Novak Djokovic fails to win the 2015 U.S. Open, he still has two majors in the bag this year; more Masters 1000 titles than anyone else; and the year-end No. 1 ranking. He successfully defended a major title outside Australia for the first time in his career. He is, by any measure, the best player in the present tense on the ATP Tour, and will carry that label into the 2016 Australian Open.
If Roger Federer fails to win the 2015 U.S. Open, he still has 17 majors to admire; his Cincinnati Masters title; his Wimbledon runner-up showing; and, perhaps most of all, that shimmering performance in the semifinals against Andy Murray, as vintage a display of tennis as he’s ever produced, after living a third of a century (33 1/3 years) on this earth.
These two men hunger for more — it’s why they’re the top two seeds at this year’s U.S. Open, and it’s why they continue to win such acclaim in the tennis world. However, the difference with the Big Three (including Rafael Nadal, who should be given a pass for this season) is that they translate their hunger into the outcomes they hunger for. No, this isn’t 100-percent true of each person at each event, but as a group? It’s pretty darn close — certainly enough to make the argument stick.
Then there’s Andy Murray, the man who isn’t part of the Big Three, but who keeps reminding us why the notion of a Big Four emerged in the first place… and why he definitely deserves to be a part of it.
Murray has turned in a splendid first eight months of 2015. He and Federer (more on this in a bit) are right there in terms of producing the second-best season on the tour behind Djokovic. Yes, Murray has lost to Federer in two late-stage matches of important tournaments, but he’s achieved more than the Swiss, winning two Masters and beating Rafael Nadal handily in the Madrid final. Removed from a simple tally of achievements or higher-tier titles, Murray’s season rates as a more impressive one than Federer’s not because of what Federer has failed to do, but because of where Murray stood last November inside the O2 Arena in London.
The 2014 season was one long and uninterrupted struggle for Murray, who — in retrospect — needed time to recover from back surgery. (Side note: Nadal might wind up needing all of 2015 to deal with the changes his body has undergone in the past year, after dealing with appendicitis and having an appendectomy. He could be a renewed player in 2016, much as our subject has been reborn in 2015.) Murray didn’t forget how to play tennis, but his body couldn’t execute what one of the sharpest minds in the sport intuitively knew it had to do.
When Murray played Federer in the round-robin portion of the 2014 ATP World Tour Finals, the result was an absolute disaster: Federer lost only one of 13 games… and it felt like a surprise that he did. The 6-0, 6-1 wipeout carried with it a whiff of humiliation, but at the same time, the fact that Murray had scaled such pronounced heights the year before, in 2013, suggested that this wasn’t about a loss of on-court intelligence or coach Amelie Mauresmo failing to produce the right tactics.
Murray, under Ivan Lendl, learned to hit his forehand with more conviction (that was Lendl’s money shot, after all). He developed the rest of his game to the point that he could overcome his second serve. He broke through at the majors in 2012 at the U.S. Open, and he also won the singles gold medal when Great Britain hosted the 2012 Olympics (with the tennis tournament being held at Wimbledon). However, his crowning achievement will always be his 2013 Wimbledon title, which made him the first male tennis player from Great Britain to win the gentlemen’s singles championship since Fred Perry in 1936.
Murray knew how he got to that point, but back surgery is no small thing. The main question entering 2015 was not necessarily, “Would Murray play well again?” It was a little more specific: Would Murray show that his body was ready to enable the tennis player (and tennis thinker) to re-emerge?
In Australia — a run to the final, even one not marked by his very best tennis — gave us our first indication that Murray’s physical and holistic wellness were returning to higher levels. Strong results in Miami (runner-up) and Madrid (champion) cemented that belief. Pushing Djokovic to five sets in the Roland Garros semifinals and then playing a very good match against Federer at Wimbledon (even though he lost in straights; Federer was a man possessed that afternoon — it has been known to happen from time to time) continued what has been a very good year for Murray.
Then, to bring the story to its present point, Murray finally beat Djokovic again — snapping an eight-match losing streak — in the Montreal final. Murray was the best player in the lead-up events preceding the U.S. Open, with a title in Canada and a semifinalist showing in Cincinnati. Djokovic was close behind with two runner-up results.
During the summer, Mauresmo entered the latter stages of pregnancy. She gave birth just under two weeks ago. Jonas Bjorkman — who made the 1997 U.S. Open semifinals — has been handling on-site coaching duties, but this is still Mauresmo’s vision for what Murray could be — and should be — doing on court. Murray has begun to show that he can hit a better second serve, one that might not be an outright weapon, but one which is no longer a genuine liability, a cream puff waiting to be gobbled up for an easy return winner. The more one looks at Murray, the more one sees that he can win this U.S. Open.
Ah, but will he? This leads us to the final — and most compelling — set of tension points in this piece.
When Murray beat Djokovic in that 2013 Wimbledon final (it’s the image you see in the cover photo for this story), he couldn’t have known or predicted that over 25 months later, he would not have beaten Djokovic or Federer again at a major tournament. Yet, that’s where Murray stands. He played Federer very competitively at Wimbledon and more recently in Cincinnati. He finally solved the Djokovic riddle in a best-of-three-set match. However, much as Federer deserves zero benefit of the doubt against Djokovic in a best-of-five context, it’s just as true for Murray against either Fed or Nole. It’s a situation in which most tennis pundits have to see it to believe it. Weirdly but genuinely, due to the fascinating flow of forces in tennis, we’re back where we were three years ago, when Murray still didn’t have a major and came to New York with a very big point to prove.
Yes, Murray has two majors to his name, so the issue of “winning a major” isn’t precisely the point — it’s part of it, but not the center of it. What matters for Murray? Two things:
1) After Stan Wawrinka matched his major-title count, Murray could deliver an emphatic retort by lifting a trophy inside Arthur Ashe Stadium in a few weeks.
2) More importantly, Murray — who could be the hinge-point player in terms of shaping what remains of this Big Four era — needs to show to himself, more than the public or the pundits, that he can take down Djokovic or Federer in a best-of-five-set match. More than “winning a major,” that’s what Murray’s career most specifically needs right now.
That specific accomplishment, if achieved, will enable Murray’s 2015 season to, for one thing, eclipse Federer’s as second-best on tour. (Should they meet in the semis in New York, it would feel like an unofficial tiebreaker for No. 2 status in the ATP.) Such a feat would also give Murray the confidence to enter 2016 with designs on winning multiple major titles and making a late-career pursuit of immense tennis riches.
In the background of Murray’s quest in New York, though, lies a plot complication (which makes this tournament even more fascinating for him). It’s something Federer had to deal with last year.
Murray watched Federer finally win the Davis Cup in 2014. Federer joined Nadal (a multiple-time winner of the championship) and Djokovic (2010) as Big Four breakthrough artists. Murray would love to join the club and fill out the final spot.
The complication is that Davis Cup is right after the U.S. Open, the Friday after the tournament ends. What works in Murray’s favor is that the final is on Sunday this year; it was on Monday last year. Nevertheless, the turnaround could be difficult, and while Murray is fully set on winning a major — it matters more than the Davis Cup by most measurements — the knowledge of an important event lingering in the background could create a tiny voice in Murray’s head which says, “Save just a little petrol in the tank for that upcoming Davis Cup semifinal against Australia.”
It’s true that in the 2014 U.S. Open semifinals, Federer lost to Marin Cilic (who, we must remind ourselves, is somehow the defending champion at this event — it will never feel natural to say so) primarily because Cilic returned and clocked groundstrokes like a madman. Cilic largely took the racquet out of Federer’s hand in that match. Yet, if Federer critics have a point, it is that the Swiss never accessed a higher gear in that contest (the gear he’s managed to find in recent times).
Could the presence of that Davis Cup semifinal for Switzerland against Italy have lurked in the background? Probably not… but that little wrinkle in the schedule is just the sort of peripheral item which can mess with an athlete’s mind — maybe not a lot, but just enough to make a difference.
Physical challenges. Mental challenges. Historic challenges. Logistical challenges. Tennistical challenges.
That last challenge involves a made-up word, but you know what that made-up word tries to express.
Andrew Barron Murray comes to New York with a lot to prove again. Some long waits and long droughts are waiting to be ended — maybe with not as much fanfare as in 2012 or 2013, but with high stakes just the same.