And so it is that Andy Murray steps on to the Arthur Ashe court in just a few hours’ time in the desperate hope of breaking his Grand Slam duck. The question remains: is Murray the eternal bridesmaid, destined to live out his career in the shadows of Djokivic, Federer and Nadal, adjusting their dress tails and resentfully catching bridal bouquets, or can he now step up to the altar and enjoy his own big day in the sunshine? Dodgy metaphors aside, it has been such a painful nearly-man experience over the past few years for Murray that desperation will be his overriding motivation tonight, having reached four major tournament finals without ever coming within a set of victory.
Overall, if plotted on a graph (which I have not done), Murray’s progress has been steady but conclusive over the past two years. Although he hasn't played a US Open final since 2008 (where Federer dismissed him in the blink of an eye), he reached the Australian Open final consecutively in 2010 and 2011, and now for the first time has two cracks at the whip in a year, having already reached the Wimbledon final against the Swiss Grand-Slam-Master in July. Murray’s previous Grand Slam encounter against Djokovic also demonstrated clear signs of improvement, eventually losing a hard-fought five-setter in the semi-final of the Australian Open. Even while enduring back spasms throughout the French Open this summer, the Scot managed to reach the quarter finals. Murray's recent form at major events has therefore shown a new-found consistency, reaching the semi-final or beyond on seven of his last eight majors.
Murray still has work to do before completing his metamorphosis into an android tennis machine of the Lendl ilk
Much credit has also been attributed to the Ivan Drago of tennis, Ivan Lendl, for Murray’s rise to near-prominence. Pundits often talk of Murray’s improved mentality. Indeed, the transition from arm-flapping wobbly-thrower to a more serene, focused performer has no doubt directly coincided with Lendl’s involvement. It is also true to say, though, that Murray still has work to do before completing his metamorphosis into an android tennis machine of the Lendl ilk. Against Federer at Wimbledon this year, Murray’s hunched body language as his first set lead slipped away so clearly enabled Federer’s confidence to grow that it ultimately proved one of the big factors in losing the final.
Murray’s impressive straight sets victory over Federer in the Olympic final is regularly cited as proof that he has learned quickly from Wimbledon and is now in a position to be able to draw from a ‘major’ tournament final victory for confidence. I think this is half true. Murray’s Olympic performance was unquestionably sublime and he wholeheartedly deserved the gold medal, but to speak of the tournament in the same terms of the Grand Slams is mistaken. True, the semi-final fixtures involving Federer, Djokovic, Murray and Del Potro would not have looked out of place at a major tournament, but Murray played with so much more intensity than his rivals that it was his desire to exact revenge on Federer within a month that ultimately won him the tournament. The same will not be true at the US Open; Djokovic will fight tooth and nail to retain his title.
Essentially, Djokovic is still the man to beat
Looking closely at tonight’s match, a daunting picture begins to emerge for Murray. Djokovic has won his last 27 hard court Grand Slam matches, stretching all the way back to the 2010 US Open final against Rafael Nadal in his bicep-bursting pomp. He has now reached seven out of the last nine Grand Slam finals, winning four of the last six. Essentially, Djokovic is still the man to beat; he’s still the guy who, when the game inevitably gets tough and requires mental resilience, will have the more relevant winning experience to draw upon. Djokovic also has the best overall record this year, winning 60 and losing 10, in comparison to Murray’s standing of seventh in the list (43 wins, 11 losses).
Despite all of this, Murray does clearly stand a realistic chance of beating ‘Nole’ tonight. To say otherwise would be to ignore the obvious all-round development in his game over the past couple of years. Perhaps the most striking sign of his improvement comes from the fact that at Wimbledon this year, for the first time he actually outplayed his opponent in a Grand Slam final- for a while at least. Winning the first set that day has also finally removed his ignominious record of straight-set Grand Slam defeats. In doing so Murray has thrown a baby monkey has off his back (quite a cruel act really), but the big mother monkey is still hanging on for dear life and Djokovic will do everything he can to keep her there.
A hard-fought five set victory for Djokovic would see Murray take the next logical step by winning two sets in a Grand Slam final
The pair have both enjoyed a relatively straightforward path to the final at Flushing Meadows, but Djokovic has had a slightly easier time of it, losing just one set (which was played in levelling blustery conditions) to Murray’s three, and the Scot has also played 5 hours 15 minutes more than the Djokovic in reaching tonight’s match. This may be cancelled out by Murray’s day off yesterday though, while Djokovic scampered around against the ever-tenacious Ferrer.
Although I very much hope to be proven wrong, my prediction is that Murray will continue his gradual climb to the top tonight without actually reaching the summit. A hard-fought five set victory for Djokovic would see Murray take the next logical step by winning two sets in a Grand Slam final. By this reasoning, I’d also suggest that Murray will win the next major final he reaches; that is, of course, if a fifth consecutive loss doesn’t send him into an emotional meltdown, with a scraggly-bearded Murray spending the rest of his days barking at thistle bushes on the Highland Moors.
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