When Andy Murray left the US Open two years ago it seemed that it would be only a matter of time before he became Britain's first male Grand Slam singles champion since Fred Perry in 1936. He had just lost to Roger Federer in his first major final, but the conditions had conspired against him and his conqueror was, after all, the greatest player of all time.
Eight Grand Slam tournaments later and we are still waiting. Indeed, Murray's third-round defeat in four sets to Stanislas Wawrinka after nearly four hours on Sunday night was his earliest departure from a Grand Slam tournament since he lost at the same stage of the French Open two years ago. Wawrinka, the world No 27, was also the lowest-ranked player to beat Murray in a Grand Slam event since Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the world No 38, surprised him in the first round of the 2008 Australian Open.
On the face of it, this was one of Murray's biggest setbacks, at a tournament he loves. He admitted afterwards that it was his worst Grand Slam defeat of the year, having lost to Tomas Berdych at the French Open, where the surface always counts against the Scot, and to Federer and Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open and Wimbledon respectively.
Nevertheless, matters are rarely straightforward with Murray and it was evident that he was having physical problems against Wawrinka. He sent for the trainer on three occasions to treat tightness in his right leg and pins and needles around his right elbow.
There were times when his movement seemed restricted. Wawrinka, who played better and better despite a leg problem of his own, chased down one lob late in the match and turned to belt a backhand winner down the line, but a fit Murray would surely have cut it off at the net. Being foot-faulted four times might also have been an indication of a physical problem.
Ever since his fitness was called into question in his early days, Murray has been reluctant to blame injuries. A damaged wrist was a major factor in his defeat to Marin Cilic here last year, but that became evident only when he was subsequently off court for six weeks.
The world No 4 described his difficulties as being "just part and parcel of playing that sort of length of match", but his on-court demeanour spoke of greater frustrations. John McEnroe said that Murray seemed to be fighting against himself as much as against Wawrinka as he scowled in anguish and conducted a running dialogue with himself. Wawrinka had the feeling that his opponent "was a little bit injured and not feeling OK".
Murray, whose fitness is usually one of his great strengths, admitted that he was struggling physically in the third and fourth sets. "I got frustrated with that," he said. "I haven't been in that position for a very long time. Maybe I felt like my chance of doing well here was slipping away. I've worked very hard to give myself a chance of winning tournaments. When I was struggling physically, I got disappointed."
He added: "I still feel like I'm super-fit. I just didn't feel great. There were a lot of things that I was feeling on the court. I just haven't felt that way for a few years now, so I'm going to have to look at why that was the case and try and get better."
Murray gave credit to Wawrinka – "He played better than me, there's not a whole lot more to it" – and rejected a suggestion that showing his frustrations had played any part in his defeat. "It's not the reason I lost the match," he said. "It hasn't been the reason I've lost any matches in a very, very long time, since I was 21."
His own game may not be hindered by venting his feelings on court, but Murray might want to ponder the effect on opponents. Wawrinka appeared to draw encouragement from seeing and hearing Murray's frustration.
The Scot may drop a place in the world rankings next Monday, but he does not have many points to defend in the coming weeks and should qualify for the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals in London. He will now take a break after more than seven weeks on the road before playing at the China Open in Beijing in four weeks' time, followed by the Masters tournaments in Shanghai and Paris. He may also defend his title in Valencia.
Murray will not lose sight of the fact that, following a difficult spring, he has had a decent summer, highlighted by his run to the Wimbledon semi-finals and victory at the Toronto Masters. He has proved that he can beat the best and that his general level of fitness is as good as anybody's. What he has yet to do is maintain those standards sufficiently to win seven matches at a Grand Slam tournament, but he came desperately close in Australia this year and is surely too good a player not to achieve it one day.
Finding a coach following the split with Miles Maclagan is a priority. Murray needs the guidance of someone who knows what it takes to win Grand Slam titles, even if they are not going to slog around the world with him to every tournament. Murray will not rush into an appointment: it is a decision he needs to get right because he believes he will be at his peak in the next four years.
"I played some of my best tennis in two of the majors this year," he said. "I want to improve and get better. I'm obviously going to look for a coach and people who are going to help me to do that, but I'm happy with the guys that I work with just now. They're all very, very good at what they do."
Did this defeat make Murray doubt whether he would ever win a Grand Slam title? "If I give 100 per cent, try my best, physically work as hard as I can, practise as much as I can, then that's all I can do," he said. "I don't know if I'll win a Grand Slam or not, but I'll give it my best shot."
Murray's major year
*AUSTRALIAN OPEN, FINAL
Lost to Roger Federer (Swit) (World ranking at the time:1) 6-3, 6-4, 7-6.
*FRENCH OPEN, FOURTH ROUND
Lost to Tomas Berdych (Cz Rep) (17) 6-4, 7-5, 6-3.
Lost to Rafael Nadal (Sp) (1) 6-4, 7-6, 6-4.
*US OPEN, THIRD ROUND
Lost to Stanislas Wawrinka (Swit) (27) 6-7, 7-6, 6-3, 6-3.Reuse content