Monday, 27 August 2012

Andy Murray targets US Open glory

There was a moment in the London Olympics final when you knew Andy Murray was going to strike gold. Federer, crushing a forehand most players would have left with a resigned look, thought he had won the point. But Murray stunned the Swiss with a sensational backhand down the line at full stretch to a standing ovation from the Centre Court crowd. And with a 6-4 6-2 6-3 victory, the first best-of-five set triumph Murray ever had over Federer, the gold medal was around his neck. So with the US Open kicking off on Monday, is this the turning point in Murray’s career?

Well first of all, this is Murray’s first US Open with coach Ivan Lendl and it’s impossible to underestimate his importance here. Lendl, an eight-time Grand Slam winner, was famous for his brash style and ability to wear down opponents from the baseline with aggressive tennis; they called him “The Terminator” for a reason. Everyone can see how this has rubbed off on Andy in recent months. There is more bite and length in that forehand now than 12 months ago. The second serve has improved immeasurably of late and his ability to hold himself together mentally on crucial points has been encouraging. What’s more, there is a curious symmetry between the two men as well; Lendl lost his first four Grand Slam finals, as has Murray.

But critics will say that we have often hyped up a Murray “turning point” which never happened all too often in the past. No Grand Slams final appearances followed from the 2008 US Open final for 18 months and he seemed as powerless against Djokovic in the 2011 Australian Open final as the year before against Federer. And this year, his unbelievable performance in the Australian Open semis was also meant to herald a new era, despite losing to Djokovic. But disappointingly, Rome aside, he didn’t replicate such form until Wimbledon, in July. Unfortunately, until Murray wins a Grand Slam, many will look back on his career as incomplete.

Due to the absence of tendonitis-ridden Rafael Nadal, who has appeared in the last two finals, only four players have any realistic chance of glory in New York – Andy Murray, world number one Roger Federer, defending champion Novak Djokovic, and 2009 winner Juan Martin Del Potro. Many have Federer down as the favourite, having won five times here between 2004 and 2008, and demolishing Djokovic in Cincinnati last week. Should he reach the semis, Federer could face Murray. And should he reach the final, he could face Djokovic or Del Potro, who are likely to wage war in the quarters.

There have been some fascinating battles at Flushing Meadows between this trio over the years. Having lost to Federer at three consecutive US Opens, Djokovic has beaten the Swiss in the last two semi-finals, saving two match points in each encounter. It was always going to be hard to replicate the form of 2011, but Djokovic has still had a very good year, winning in Canada, Miami and Australia. I’m not too sure we can read too much into his Cincinatti defeat from a mental perspective, since best-of-three set matches are a different ball game to five sets. Nevertheless, Djokovic may have missed a trick in not skipping either Cincinatti or Toronto the previous week to rest; he reached the finals of both competitions after all. Time will tell how much this will affect his US Open, but at the end of the day, it’s about who can hold their nerve during those crucial points.

And don’t be surprised if a certain Argentine upset the Serb and reached the final. Juan Martin del Potro’s US Open victory over Federer in 2009 will go down as one of the great modern finals; the quality was breathtaking and del Potro rattled Federer with those sledgehammer serves and forehands. He is back to his very best after a serious wrist injury which ruled him out for 18 months; the marathon 19-17 set in the Olympics against Federer is testament to that. He also took a two-set lead against Federer in the French earlier this year, before the Swiss mounted a memorable comeback. On his day, he can beat anybody, and on arguably his favourite surface of all, he can settle into an ominous attacking rhythm.

The fast courts at Flushing Meadows may also suit the big-serving Americans, notably Andy Roddick and the giant John Isner. Roddick has a decent draw in front of him and will fancy his chances of making the third round, not a bad deal considering his injury problems of late, while Isner will hope to please the home crowd by at least matching his quarter final appearance of last year. Meanwhile, Tsonga and Berdych, two talented players who would have won majors in any other era, are in Murray’s half of the draw and will be difficult obstacles to overcome. Don’t underestimate the qualities of Feliciano Lopez or Milos Raonic either, other potential opponents for the Scot should he overcome Alex Bogomolov in the first round.

Murray will have his work cut out if he is to win his first Grand Slam, since this is a surface which many players adore. But no player has really dominated the season so far – we have had three different Grand Slam winners after all – so now is as good a time as ever for Murray to do it.

Predicted winner: Andy Murray

Predicted runner up: Juan Martin del Potro

Dark horse: Milos Raonic

Recent US Open finals:

2011Novak DjokovicRafael Nadal6-2, 6-4, 6-7, 6-1
2010Rafael NadalNovak Djokovic6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2
2009Juan Martin del PotroRoger Federer3-6, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-2
2008Roger FedererAndy Murray6-2, 7-5, 6-2
2007Roger FedererNovak Djokovic7-6, 7-6, 6-4
2006Roger FedererAndy Roddick6-2, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1
2005Roger FedererAndre Agassi6-3, 2-6, 7-6, 6-1
2004Roger FedererLleyton Hewitt6-0, 7-6, 6-0

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