US Open: Murray takes high road

Scot already has mental qualities of a champion, says his guru
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The Independent Online

The message on the chest of Andy Murray's favourite T-shirt could not be more symbolic. "The Greatest Road Trip in Sports", it announces, and its owner will be making one of his most significant pit-stops on that exciting journey at Flushing Meadows, New York, where the US Open gets under way tomorrow.

Suddenly, but not surprisingly, everyone connected with the Scottish teenager is very upbeat about his prospects of pushing deep into the heart of the year's last Grand Slam, a tournament he exited in the second round 12 months ago having been sick on court.

The reason for optimism is not difficult to uncover, since there is now a relentless inevitability about Murray's progress up the rankings. While never noticeably short of confidence, Andy's self-esteem will have been offered a mighty boost by his defeat of Roger Federer. The natural corollary to that particular landmark is the growled invitation: "Bring 'em all on".

The coming days will tell us much about Murray's prospects of achieving by the end of the season the place in the sport's top 10 predicted by John McEnroe. Having risen to 19th by virtue of his sensational run on the hard courts of North America, Murray collects the bonus of a 17th seeding in New York, since two of those ranked above him, Radek Stepanek and Mario Ancic, are absent injured.

A good gallop in the Meadows, something very much on the cards, will nudge him closer to that glittering mark, though his former coach, Mark Petchey, cannot see Murray grasping a Grand Slam trophy for another two or three years, citing the question marks over his physical fitness as a possible barricade. The man who has picked up the coaching reins, Brad Gilbert, does not share Petchey's view. Discounting the opinion that "the kid looks 15", Gilbert asserts that Murray is already in possession of the mental qualities of a champion and that the physical development will come with the sort of boot-camp sessions the pair undertook at the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Florida before travelling to New York.

The inner powers were evident, says Gilbert, in Murray's defeat by Andy Roddick in Cincinnati nine days ago, his last outing before the US Open. Though his legs had gone after a series of tough contests in draining heat, Gilbert asserts "he still had his chin", the appropriate attitude of someone who has a love of boxing and deep admiration for those involved in it.

Though stamina will be rigorously examined by the best-of-five-sets formula, Murray will be required to put himself on the line only every other day, which must be of assistance to a youngster who has already demonstrated he has the strokes, the attitude and the mental strength to compete with the top guns.

Though drawn in Federer's half, Murray is offered an undemanding start against the American qualifier Robert Kendrick, - who came so close to defeating Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon - followed by a second round against the Austrian Jürgen Melzer, 73rd in the rankings. Then, if Andy's ever-present cap is still pointing in the right direction, could come a third round against that whirlwind hitter and 10th seed Fernando Gonzalez of Chile, followed by a quarter-final against the seventh seed from Russia, Nikolay Davydenko and, who knows, perhaps a second chance to embarrass Federer in the semi-finals. Rest assured that is the navigational system being plotted by Gilbert and Murray for this section of the road trip.

For Britain's other duo in the main draw, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, there is the grim fact that whoever wins their first-round "Battle of Britain" (Henman leads 7-2) will then have to go against Federer. The great man will have put behind him that defeat by Murray in Cincinnati and be focusing on capturing his ninth Grand Slam and third consecutive US Open.

As ever, it is Nadal, who has beaten Federer four times this year, who bears the weapons capable of overturning the Swiss cart, though a resurgent Roddick, under the belligerent tutelage of Jimmy Connors, will fancy his chances of getting through in Nadal's half of the draw. Roddick probably represents the best United States hope of salvaging something from Flushing Meadows, which will stage an emotional farewell to Andre Agassi, appearing for an astonishing 21st year in succession.

In the women's event, American prospects appear about as bright as Agassi's hopes of significant scalps on his way towards the exit door. No significant US females have so far stepped forward to replace those tottering towers, the Williams sisters and Lindsay Davenport. Venus and Serena Williams won this title twice each between 1999 and 2002, but this time Venus has withdrawn because of ongoing concerns about a left-wrist injury while Serena, who has managed just six matches in the run-up after months out of action, needs a wild card to justify a place in the tournament she dominated four years ago.

Davenport, the 1998 champion now down at 10th in the seedings, is so crucially short of matches she is talking about a "nothing to lose" attitude. Despite the absence of the defending champion, Kim Clijsters, with renewed wrist problems, there will be plenty for the likes of the Williamses and Davenport to lose in a field containing the year's top two performers, Amélie Mauresmo and Justine Henin-Hardenne, as well as an in-form and fit-again Maria Sharapova, eagerly in pursuit of another Grand Slam to go with her Wimbledon win in 2004.

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