According to John McEnroe, nobody will have more at stake over the next fortnight than Andy Murray. After a year in which the biggest prizes have been shared by the game's Fab Four – Novak Djokovic won the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal the French Open, Roger Federer Wimbledon and Murray the Olympics – the US Open, which begins here tomorrow, could be a deciding factor in who will be regarded as the player of 2012.
"I think Murray has the most to lose and the most to gain at this point," McEnroe said. "Before the Olympics, it was between the other three guys as to who would win and then become No 1. But now the way it pans out, it's conceivable that Murray could make an argument that, were he to win this, and then have a strong season and, say, win the Masters [in London], there's a possibility that you could say he's the best player in the world this year. To me that's an unbelievable upside."
In the absence of the injured Nadal, the stage is set for a major showdown between the Spaniard's three rivals in the top four. McEnroe says you can make a strong case for any of them winning the year's final Grand Slam tournament.
The pressure is off Federer, who won his first Grand Slam title for two and a half years at Wimbledon. Recovering quickly from his defeat to Murray in the Olympic final, the world No 1 went on to win the Masters in Cincinnati last weekend.
Djokovic, having lost in the semi-final at Wimbledon and the Olympics, has rediscovered some of his finest form on the North American hard-court circuit, where he often plays his best tennis. Murray, meanwhile, appears to be bursting with confidence after his victory at the Olympics, where he beat Djokovic and Federer in successive matches with some inspired attacking play.
Murray's run four weeks earlier to the Wimbledon final, in which he lost to Federer, was a clear sign of the progress he had made since appointing Ivan Lendl as his coach at the start of the year. Lendl did not stay on for the Olympics, but remained in daily telephone contact with the Scot and his team. "Andy was playing the way we know he can and it was great to see," Lendl said. "The Olympics gives you confidence, maybe just in the way that others perceive you, so he should be more relaxed and more comfortable."
The debate over the merits of Olympic gold in comparison with a Grand Slam title continues, but Lendl said: "I think in many ways winning the gold is much more difficult than winning a Slam, because you get a chance only once every four years. When Andy was 21 he wasn't quite ready. Now he's won it. If he didn't win it he would be 29 the next time and who knows? He clearly did it coming into the prime of his career. If he will still be in his prime when he's 29, we don't know."
Does Murray himself believe that he can maintain the momentum generated by his success at Wimbledon and the Olympics? "I don't know," he said here last night. "A week in sport can be quite a long time. There has been a number of weeks since Wimbledon and a number of weeks since the Olympics as well.
"The one thing it has probably given me is a bit more confidence, but I needed to make sure afterwards that I worked hard. That's the most important thing. Whether you're confident or not confident, providing you work hard and you do all the right things in training, then you'll get a good result. That was the most important thing: to make sure I kept my feet on the ground and keep working hard and try to improve."
Murray, who said he had recovered from a knee problem, usually arrives here on the back of good results in the two preceding Masters Series events and does not believe his failure to go beyond the third round of either tournament this month will have any relevance. "I played some of my best tennis in Australia when I have not really gone in there playing that many competitive matches beforehand," he said. "So long as I have trained well and practised well, that's what gives me the most confidence. I went into Wimbledon this year having lost in the first round of Queen's. That was meant to be a horrible preparation, but Wimbledon worked out fine. So there's no reason why that can't happen here."
Brad Gilbert, Murray's former coach, believes the Olympic triumph will be "a huge boost" to the world No 4's confidence. Gilbert, who will be alongside McEnroe in the ESPN commentary team here, said: "It's the first time he beat the Nos 1 and 2 in the world in a major. He had done it in Masters Series, but never in a major. I think that was a huge piece for him, especially as he had lost three times to Roger in best-of-five in the finals. To do it the way he did, I actually thought that would lead him to have a pretty big summer."
Both Murray and Lendl lost their first four Grand Slam finals. When Lendl won his first major title, he went on to win seven more. Did that breakthrough changed him as a player? "No, I didn't feel it was any different or that my game was any different than before," Lendl said. "Having said that, it is a big help because of the way the others perceive you. Is it worth a point in a tie-break in the fifth set? Maybe."
Much will be expected of Murray over the next fortnight, but Lendl for one will be keeping his feet on the ground. Asked whether he thought Murray's gold medal could be a sign of greater triumphs ahead, Lendl said: "The signs are there, but you never know. I know you guys like to create headlines and get quotes like that, but if we're going to get along, that's not me.
"I hate headlines, I hate creating sensations and so on. I'd rather downplay this. On the surface, yes, but you never know how things are going to play out."