Murray on the march, Henman on the slide

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The Independent Online

Murray, labelled "the Brit teen sensation" by the tournament website, joins Tim Henman, a semi-finalist in New York last year, and Greg Rusedski, runner-up in 1997, after battling through the qualifying event with three victories, all in straight sets, despite continuing pain from a shoulder problem which developed a fortnight ago.

Treatment, he has decided, will have to be deferred until he had made his mark as a grown-up at Flushing Meadows, scene of his triumph in the juniors 12 months back. Having started the year deep down among the 500s in the world rankings, Murray's summer successes have lifted him to 122, only just outside an automatic place in the US men's field.

Provided those three wins, which make him the youngest from this country ever to qualify for a Grand Slam, have not taken too great a toll on his shoulder, they could prove valuable warm-up material for his first-round contest with the 39th-ranked Romanian Andrei Pavel, a 31-year-old who got to the US Open's fourth round in 2004. Having twice beaten Taylor Dent, 13 places higher in the rankings than Pavel, in the past three months Murray, not noticeably short of confidence, will have noted that his second-round opposition will be either a fellow qualifier, Arnaud Clement of France, a quarter-finalist at the US Open in 2001, or Spain's Juan Carlos Ferrero, the 2003 Roland Garros champion. Then, while we're at it, we can point out the possibility of a fourth-round clash with the defending champion, Roger Federer.

There is for Tim Henman the depressing possibility that if he cannot snap out of his wretched run he could fail to go as far as Murray. If that happens, the loss of all the points accumulated by reaching the last four in 2004 will drop Henman out of the world's top 20. Having won only one of four matches since his second- round exit at Wimbledon, Henman owns up to "a bad six months." A bad year, more like, since he has not been beyond the quarter-finals of any tournament. A further embarrassing statistic is that Henman could soon be replaced as British No 1 by the resurgent Greg Rusedski, who has pushed his way back into the top 30 with consistent tennis over the summer.

While the 12th-seeded Henman has not pulled a dangerous dark horse, starting as he does against Fernando Verdasco, a Spanish left-hander ranked 48, he is in the same quarter as the Australian Open champion, Marat Safin, and his nemesis Lleyton Hewitt. Rusedski, who opens against James Blake, the American with a British mother, could face Spain's wonder boy, Rafael Nadal, in the third round.

More than most events, the US Open yearns for home-grown champions to slake the demands of the TV people who shamefully stage-manage the occasion, but they may be out of luck again. Federer is odds-on to retain a men's crown which had lodged with Americans, Andy Roddick and Pete Sampras, in the previous two years.

Although by some distance the best of the American men, Roddick has won only one of his 10 matches against Federer and one senses an inevitability in his own attitude towards such meetings. At 35, Andre Agassi is surely too old to repeat his victories of 1994 and 1999, especially with an ailing hip.

If anyone can overturn Federer's steamroller it is surely the incredible Nadal. These two have shared the seven Masters Series tournaments this year, Federer winning four and Nadal three. The latest of Nadal's triumphs, at the Montreal Masters, was his first hard-court title to go with the eight has has collected on clay in 2005.

Though their true stars are down to three, there are stronger hopes among the American women for a home champion, just as they had for five years from 1998 with Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters. Both the Williamses have collected a Grand Slam this year, Serena in Australia and Venus so memorably at Wimbledon, but the Russians, led by Maria Sharapova, are in battalion strength (nine in the top 20), while there is also the resurrected possibility of a Belgian champion.

Sharapova will be boosted by her brief ascent last Monday to the world No 1 spot, and she is talking a good fight about adding the US title to her Wimbledon success of 2004. However, the in-form contender is Kim Clijsters, still seeking her first Grand Slam.

So successfully has the 22-year-old Clijsters come back following wrist surgery last year that she has won six titles this season, the most pleasing of them being the latest, in which she defeated her compatriot and deadly rival Justine Henin-Hardenne in Toronto last weekend.

However, Henin, who has also had injury and illness woes, is a tough cookie when the Slams come around, as she proved at Roland Garros in June. The draw has ordained that an all-Belgian final could be possible. Don't bet against it, unless Sharapova can derail the Clijsters express in the semi-finals.

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