All eyes are on Andy Murray these days. In fact you would think the Scotsman was the top-ranked player in the world, not Novak Djokovic, as the fallout from his first Grand Slam win last fall at the US Open continues to wash over him and the rest of the tennis world.
Ranked No. 3 (he’s been higher before at No. 2) the once-unruly Murray no longer has to answer pesky questions about why he is the best Brit since Fred Perry in 1936 never to win a major. So that is why he termed his fifth set victory over Djokovic at Flushing Meadows more a “relief” than cause for jubilation after succumbing in four straight Grand Slam finals.
At this writing defending champion Murray has barged into the semis at Brisbane, a tune-up for the Australian Open which begins on Jan. 14. Coach and former world No. 1 Ivan Lendl had yet to join his redeemed pupil, although his absence was apparently not a factor, with Murray overcoming Uzbekistan’s Denis Istomin in the quarters despite looking “rusty,” according to some reporters.
Lendl the dour Czech was brought in by the Murray camp last year to engineer the Slam breakthrough, as he himself had gone through a hell of sorts in the early ‘80s, losing four straight major finals before defeating John McEnroe, then No. 1, in the 1984 French Open.
Lendl almost got off the hook last summer, when Murray, suffering under enormous press pressure in his homeland, seemed poised to capture Wimbledon, taking the first set from 7-time champion Roger Federer, before they closed the Centre Court roof and Fed shifted into Ferrari gear.
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Then Murray took revenge on the Swiss master in the London Olympics final, a three-set rout, before finally finding inner peace with the US Open win.
All that is history now, of course, but it has raised the bar of expectations considerably for Murray coming into the first major of the year in Melbourne. He’s been to the final twice before in 2010 and 2011. But with Spain’s Nadal out of the Aussie fray this time on account of a stomach illness, that’s one onerous hurdle Murray won’t have to deal with; only Djokovic, whom he knows he can beat, and Federer, 31, who at this stage of his brilliant career is not finding winning Slams the walk in the park it was in his mid-20s.
At 25, Murray is no spring chicken and most recent legends of the game, Connors, Borg, McEnroe and Sampras, hit their strides in the Slams at an earlier juncture. Except for Lendl, that is, arguably the player of the ‘80s with eight straight US Open finals appearances during that decade and now eager to duplicate that sort of skein with his compelling protégé.
Murray is indeed a complex individual and player, a gifted counter-puncher with all the offensive weapons if an oft-criticized reluctance to use them. Oddly, or coincidentally enough, Lendl never could take the Wimbledon crown - losing in two finals – on account of an awkwardness at the net that doomed him when it mattered most.
Murray is more at ease on grass, and at the net, so it would seem only a matter of time before Centre Court becomes, if not his backyard the way it was for Sampras, then at least a triumphant guest venue.
But first comes the Australian, where the Scotsman appears as a shining white knight, the de facto favorite.