There are so many Britons at the top of men's tennis these days they cannot stop playing each other. At least that is the way it seems to Tim Henman, whose past two tournaments have ended in defeat to Andy Murray, and who now faces Greg Rusedski in the first round of the US Open, which begins here today.
"It feels like we should be a tennis hotbed," Henman said. "At the moment it's like being one of the Spaniards, who are having to play each other every week."
The British men's contingent here was raised to four for the first time since 2000 when the 20-year-old Josh Goodall successfully negotiated the qualifying tournament (as he did at Wimbledon two months ago) to earn a place in the first round and a tough encounter with France's Paul-Henri Mathieu.
With the winner of Henman v Rusedski almost certain to meet the world No 1 Roger Federer, it looks likely that the 19-year-old Murray will quickly find himself in an increasingly familiar situation as the last Briton. In the first round the No 17 seed will face an American qualifier, Robert Kendrick, who took the Spaniard Rafael Nadal to five sets at Wimbledon.
Murray's projected opponents from the third round onwards in the tournament are Fernando Gonzalez (No 10 seed), Nikolay Davydenko (7), David Nalbandian (4) and, in the semi-finals, Federer.
Murray's stock has risen sharply after reaching the final in Washington and the semi-finals and quarter-finals in successive Masters series tournaments in Toronto and Cincinnati. In the latter he became the only player other than Nadal to beat Federer this year.
Rusedski believes the appointment of Brad Gilbert as Murray's coach has been crucial. "Brad's done a fantastic job improving his game," Rusedski said. "He's a very good tactician and he's cleaned up certain areas mentally.
"Andy's not getting mad at the opponents or situations. He gets a little bit angry at Brad, but it works well because he channels his anger in a different direction. Brad tells him what to do on court very well, so he's got all the ideas there.
"He's cleaned up his consistency from the back of the court. He's using his inside-out forehand more and his cross-court backhand. Brad's trying to get that percentage of first serves up, which will be a huge kick. If he can get that higher, it will take Andy up to the next echelon."
Rusedski added: "Andy's got the right game for the way tennis is played nowadays. He's one of the best returners of serve in the world, he moves well from the back and it's ground-stroke tennis with slower balls. Wimbledon, the US Open and the hard-court season suit his game."
What impressed Gilbert most when he first saw Murray play was the Scot's ability to change speed so quickly, while the greatest surprise in working with him has been the quality of his volleying.
"I think he can become a great net player," Gilbert said. "When he comes in, for a guy who's so young and doesn't serve and volley, he's got great hands, good instinct and great technique. Maybe in a few years, when his game is more complete, we will see him at the net a bit more."
Gilbert's most pressing concern is the Scot's fitness. He was so exhausted after 14 matches in 17 days that they had to cancel some "boot camp" work at Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida last week. Gilbert said: "A lot of times at 19 guys have it physically, and they can play 10 sets, but mentally they're like midgets. Mentally Andy is unbelievably strong and now we need to work on the physical side.
"The physical is easier to obtain than the mental. It's going to take hard work. It's going to take 18 months. We'll have to look at his diet, and he's going to have to put in the hard yards. Andy knows that.
"We're going to get in a specialist to help him. We're going to get him stronger and bigger, but in tennis you can't do it like in American football, where you put 20lb on a guy in three months. There are going to be a lot of hills that he doesn't want to be running and he's going to learn to lift some weights. We're going to work on a lot of different things that aren't tennis. It's going to be a lifestyle change."
Henman, who is suffering renewed back trouble, and Rusedski, who may need surgery on a damaged hip, have had their own physical problems of late and must wonder how many times they will return here. "I've got to think about life after tennis," Rusedski said. "I don't want to be like Andre Agassi, who's had to take cortisone shots in his back for the last five years. I don't know what those effects are going to be on him when he's 40, 45."
Henman said that playing on hard courts had caused his back problems to return. "It's frustrating because I had a really good spell with it since Miami this year," the Englishman said. "Coming back here it's not been great. I had a really long match in the first round in Washington and that definitely didn't help."Reuse content