Can Murray cash in at US Open while rivals show the strain?
The bookmakers still have Novak Djokovic as the hot favourite to win the US Open but as Andy Murray prepares for the start of the year's final Grand Slam event in six days' time the Scot might consider how much the ground has shifted in his favour in recent days.
While Murray went into last week's Cincinnati Masters badly in need of matches, having just lost first time out in Montreal, the Djokovic express had seemed unstoppable after the world No 1 claimed his ninth title of the year. One tournament later, however, and it was Murray celebrating victory while a weary Djokovic nursed an injured right shoulder that forced him to retire early in the second set against the world No 4. It was only his second defeat this year.
Djokovic now faces a race to recover for the US Open. The 24-year-old Serb said he had felt increasing pain in the shoulder, particularly when serving and hitting forehands, for 10 days. He also admitted to feeling exhausted.
"I've played so many matches this year," he said. "I've been winning a lot and reaching the final stages of each event. Considering the busy schedule, it's kind of normal to expect that at some stage you are exhausted, but I'm confident that I can recover and be ready for the US Open."
While Djokovic attempts to rebuild his strength, the two players immediately beneath him in the rankings need to rediscover their form. Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have struggled in the last two Masters Series tournaments. Both made early exits in Montreal, Nadal losing to Ivan Dodig and Federer to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and both suffered straight-set defeats in the Cincinnati quarter-finals, to Mardy Fish and Tomas Berdych respectively.
Djokovic is as short as 5-4 for the US Open with some bookmakers, with Nadal, Federer and Murray all priced at around 5-1. Murray, nevertheless, will not be talking up his chances at the expense of the three men who between them have won 25 of the last 26 Grand Slam titles. "Those guys could end up making the semi-finals," Murray said after his Cincinnati victory. "If all of them lose early then obviously my chances would go up, but I'm sure, come the start of the US Open next Monday, all of them will be fine. I think they will be playing great tennis, much better than they have played here."
Three years ago Murray won his first Masters Series title in Cincinnati, again at the expense of Djokovic, and went on to beat Nadal in the US Open semi-finals before losing to Federer in his first Grand Slam final. The heat and humidity and fast playing surface make Cincinnati the ideal preparation for Flushing Meadows.
"It's normally pretty humid in New York and the courts are very similar to the ones here," Murray said. "If you can get a few matches here and play well, it gives you good confidence going into the US Open."
He added: "It was really a good week after I struggled last week. I didn't drop a set and beat some very good players from the first round onwards."
Murray said he had had "a few niggles" of his own but was generally happy with his physical condition. "The plan is to be feeling perfect going into the Grand Slams," he said. "That's really been my goal this year and I've done a good job at it so far."
Maria Sharapova underlined her own US Open credentials by beating Jelena Jankovic 4-6, 7-6, 6-3 in the women's final. "I came here wanting to play matches and wanting to raise my level and I think I did that," the Russian said after claiming the 24th title of her career.
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