Like the flaming torch in the outstretched hand of the Statue of Liberty, the US Open rises over the onrushing football miasma to see out the sporting summer. After this it’s dark nights and floodlights all the way to the US Masters in the second week of April. Much as we love the beautiful game, there is, in my house at least, a sense of loss when the sun sets on bat and ball.
Cricket and golf are done. Only tennis is left to balance the orgy of football, which means a fortnight of Andy Murray love.
New York is where he crossed the line to become a major champion for the first time, and where he needs to rise again to reinforce his standing, to be something more than the fourth wheel at the vanguard of the game.
Roger Federer has 17 Grand Slam titles, Rafa Nadal 14, Novak Djokovic seven. The Federer pot count is in keeping with an aesthetic that needs no qualification. He is out on his own. Nadal is peerless on clay, a winner on all surfaces and considered to have Federer’s number mano a mano. Again, his record speaks for itself.
Take those two out of it and elbow Pete Sampras aside and Djokovic is rightly considered a historic warrior. He has contested 12 of the last 16 Grand Slam finals, winning six. And this in the era of the most acquisitive players tennis has known.
So where does two-major Andy sit in the pantheon? Nowhere near any of the above, that is for sure. This is not to diminish his achievements. If he never wins again he has a substantial body of work behind him. But that is not enough when you have a talent like his and ambitions to lay down some historically big data.
The significance of his victory over Djokovic last year, ending decades of mad yearning for a British male to win Wimbledon, has yet to be established. Back trouble resurfaced, requiring surgery at the end of last year. Murray eventually emerged into the light at the French Open, where he made it to the semi-finals before Nadal imposed his unique majesty.
At Wimbledon he looked imperious before walking into a Bulgarian ambush called Grigor Dimitrov in the quarter-finals, during which the separation from coach Ivan Lendl appeared to hurt him most.
After a boot camp in Miami, he tells us he is in the best shape of his career ahead of today’s first-round encounter with fellow back problem sufferer Robin Haase on Louis Armstrong Court.
Murray enters his second major tournament with Lendl’s successor Amélie Mauresmo. He claims to enjoy the feminine rhythms she brings to the practice environment, leading the amateur psychoanalyst in us to draw all sorts of associations with the overarching influence of his mother, Judy, in his youth.
Louis Armstrong is the court to which he was diverted during the storm season of 2008 to inflict semi-final defeat on Nadal and earn passage to his first Grand Slam final. The match with Federer flared into a contest for a few games in the second set before the slaughter resumed.
Murray walked from the court like a trauma victim, the life beaten out of him by Federer, who has something of Genghis Khan about him when presented with weakness in a foe. There would be more pain to come 18 months later in the final at Melbourne, inflicted by the same hands.
He has lost in five Grand Slam finals, and only in two of those has he won a set, which brings us to the key point about Murray, a psyche that too often appears brittle. He has shown mettle in twice beating Djokovic to register his Grand Slam victories, but all too frequently he has appeared incapable of altering a negative course.
Dimitrov was just one recent example. Blowing winning positions against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Canada and Federer in Cincinnati in the build-up to the US Open would be others. He acknowledges the need to address the issue. With Lendl at his side it seemed he had acquired the mental resolve to stare down the ubermensch. This is Mauresmo’s biggest challenge, to reconnect somehow with the beast that will not be beaten.
Flushing Meadows suits him. He loves a hard court and there is none of the nationalistic mush that attends Murray at Wimbledon. Here he can be a tennis player, as opposed to “Andy”, the public construct he is in London. Somewhere in between is the real Murray waiting to reveal himself.
Nadal is absent, Djokovic uncharacteristically out of sorts. Only Federer of the big four brings quantifiable excellence to the piece.
How apt it would be were Murray to meet him in the final and, six years after that first drubbing, touch hands with Liberty in New York.