For so long now, men’s tennis has been dominated by what has become known as the Big Four. Yet in truth, it’s really been more like a “Big Three plus Andy Murray”, with the Scot watching on as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have combined to win 29 of the past 30 majors from the 2005 French Open onwards.
Yet this year’s US Open represents arguably the best chance Murray has ever had to claim his maiden Grand Slam title, which would see him firmly re-insert himself into conversations surrounding the Big Four of the men’s game.
Murray’s status as one of the hottest favourites for the title at Flushing Meadows has come about for several reasons. First and foremost, it’s been due to his gold medal-winning performance at the London 2012 Olympics.
Before a packed Wimbledon Centre Court crowd of patriotic Brits, Murray rode their support and his own stellar form to a straight-sets win over Federer, his first victory over the Swiss in a five-set match. With an Olympic singles gold medal widely considered the biggest achievement in tennis outside of the majors, it seems Murray is getting closer to cracking the code on one of the four biggest stages of the game.
And why not in New York? Hard courts suit his game better than the lawns of England, especially the cement of North America – he reached his first career Grand Slam final in New York in 2008, and has won the Canada and Cincinnati Masters titles in the lead-up to the US Open a collective four times.
Murray will be spared the challenge of facing Rafael Nadal at Flushing Meadows, with the Spaniard forced to withdraw from the tournament due to ongoing problems with his troublesome knees. Nadal owns a dominant 13-5 head-to-head record over Murray, including 6-2 in Grand Slams (6-1 if you discount Nadal’s retirement from their quarterfinal match in Australia in 2010).
Another of Murray’s chief rivals, Djokovic, seems a shadow of the player who held the sport in an iron grip throughout 2011. One key indicator of Djokovic’s decline has been his combined head-to-head record against Federer and Nadal, which last year was an incredible 10-1. In 2012, it’s been flipped, currently standing at 3-5. The most recent of those losses came in last week’s Cincinnati final, where Federer straight-setted Djokovic and won a set 6-0 against the Serb for the first time in their playing history.
Murray also seems to be gaining the upper hand over Djokovic in recent times, beating the reigning US Open champion in straight sets on his way to the Olympic title and pushing him to the limit in a glorious five-set semifinal at Australian Open 2012. The pair has split four meetings this season.
One feature of that Australian Open semi was Murray’s new-found willingness to attack, an element increasingly prominent in his game under the tutelage of former great Ivan Lendl. With more pop on his serve and a forcing forehand, Murray is beginning to reap the rewards of a more aggressive mindset.
It was also on display in the Wimbledon final against Federer, even though Murray eventually lost. It was by far his best showing in a major final – he had lost his previous three in straight sets – and saw him attacking Federer from the opening point, surprising the Swiss and helping the Scot snare the opening set before Federer later steadied to win in four.
Yet Federer very much remains the player for Murray, and everyone else in the US Open field, to beat. Having returned to No.1 following his Wimbledon triumph and cementing his position with the Cincinnati Masters title, the Swiss great’s motivation levels are as high as they’ve ever been, making him determined to add to his haul of 17 majors and five US Open crowns.
Federer last won the title in New York in 2008. The past two tournaments saw him exit at the semifinal stage, both times failing to convert match points in the fifth set against Djokovic. A year earlier, he lost in a thrilling five-set final to Juan Martin del Potro, the only player who has shown any real signs of disrupting the dominance of the game’s top quartet.
The tall Argentinean is this year’s US Open dark horse, his season in 2012 panning out in eerily similar circumstances to how it did in his winning year of 2009 – steadily improving results at Grand Slams, a ranking on the rise, and peaking at just the right time before the major tournament on his favourite surface. Players will be shifting uneasily in their shoes at the thought of seeing Del Potro’s name next to theirs in the draw.
The dynamics in men’s game have subtly, but discernibly, shifted. And it’s been Murray’s form and results in 2012 that have significantly contributed to that being the case.
The US Open could very well be the place that the Scot takes it a step further and turns the established order on its head.