At this stage of 2013 voting might just as well have been closed in the Sports Personality of the Year awards after Andy Murray had ended Britain’s 77-year wait for a men’s singles champion at Wimbledon. Given the golfer Rory McIlroy’s victories this summer at The Open and US PGA Championship the same probably applies this year.
Murray and McIlroy met on Friday at the Ridgewood Country Club, where the Ulsterman was competing in The Barclays. The course is just 23 miles from where the Scot will today begin his US Open campaign here at Flushing Meadows.
It was no surprise that the two men found plenty to talk about. “Obviously we’re both in individual sports and there has been a lot of expectation on both of us over the last few years,” Murray said. “It’s nice and it can be helpful to talk to other athletes in different sports. I find it interesting and it can give you a different way of looking at things. I enjoyed spending time with him.
“He’s a very nice guy. I’ve met him a couple of times before, at some of the tournaments. He’s enjoying himself just now. He has played great the last few months. I’m happy for him.
“You watch him live but then you speak to him and can see he is a totally normal guy. He’s not different to anyone else, just incredibly gifted at golf. He obviously works extremely hard at it as well. You see him playing with Bubba Watson and Jimmy Walker. He’s hitting the ball 30 or 40 yards further than Jimmy Walker, who is a fantastic golfer, and that’s special. You can’t teach that. He’s a small guy and not incredibly strong, but he has incredible technique and timing. It was great to watch.”
Would McIlroy be a worthy successor as Sports Personality of the Year? “I would expect him to win it,” Murray said. “He deserves it. I don’t think anyone has come close to achieving what he has done this year. He still has a bit of time left to do some more damage. He would definitely be my pick.”
After his own up-and-down season Murray will know that his only chance of being one of the contenders for this year’s award will be if he wins the final Grand Slam tournament of 2014. The Scot has a fine record at Flushing Meadows – this is where he won the junior title in 2004, reached his first Grand Slam final in 2008 and won his first Grand Slam title in 2012 – but since beginning his comeback from back surgery at the start of this year he has failed to find the necessary consistency to win tournaments. It is now 13 months since he won a title or beat an opponent ranked in the world’s top 10.
The draw here, moreover, has handed Murray a major challenge over the next fortnight. His potential route to the title is littered with seasoned campaigners, starting with Robin Haase in the first round this afternoon.
Haase is the world No 70 and has never been in the top 30, but the 27-year-old Dutchman is a flamboyant shot-maker who can trouble the best. Murray learned as much here three years ago, when Haase won the first two sets in their second-round encounter before losing in five. Murray won in straight sets in their only subsequent meeting at last year’s Australian Open.
Recalling their 2011 meeting here, Haase said he had almost pulled out of the tournament because of a back problem. “I won my first round just by serving and hitting a few winners,” he said. “Against Andy I knew it would not be possible to do the same, but somehow he actually let me do it because in the first two sets he didn’t make me run as much. Once he did, the match was over very quickly.
“It was a long time ago. Last time we played was at the Australian Open, where I knew I had no chance to win. I had made some changes. I didn’t feel good at that time. Now it’s a different time for me. I feel much better on the court. Now I give myself a much better chance than a year ago.”
Haase, nevertheless, has had his own problems of late. He is in pain every day after surgery on his right knee – which he describes as the knee of a 60- or 70-year-old – and has failed to go beyond the second round in 20 of the 23 tournaments he has played this year.
Asked if he felt this was a good time to play Murray, given that the Scot was “struggling” to find his best form, Haase said: “If you struggle and you still make the semis and finals of big events, I don’t call that struggling. I call struggling when a guy like me is losing in the first and second rounds.”
He added: “Andy does not have many weaknesses in his game. His second serve is maybe one of those, but it has improved over the years and it’s not that bad that you can just smack it away – otherwise many other players would have done it before, of course. Maybe I can profit from it a little bit. Maybe once or twice I have to go a little bit more for my shots.”
Murray, meanwhile, said on Saturday night that he had not felt as good going into a Grand Slam tournament since his triumph at Wimbledon last summer. “I’ve had a great practice week, had good fun on the court, enjoyed it and worked hard,” he said. “I feel ready to start the tournament.”