Andy Murray used to do the nine-hour road slog from Cincinnati to New York for the U.S. Open, a largely mind-numbing drive lifted from the pages of Jack Kerouac but without the chemical assistance.
The Scot’s motoring days would seem to be numbered, however, at least across the U.S. The defending champion now arrives in a private jet. It is not the luxury he pays for but the convenience and the optimum conditions to rest before the final slam tournament of the year, one which will put serious demands on his body and spirit if he gets through the fortnight and seven potential five-setters to reach the final again.
Routine is at the core of his preparation, and, despite failing to reach the weekend in Cincinnati and in Montreal, he is satisfied with his return to tennis after a three-week break to recover from the rigours of winning Wimbledon. Some things he has control of, such as accommodation. “I will stay in the same hotel this year. I’ve changed in Australia, for example, numerous times, but I’ve stayed in the same hotel the last couple of years there.”
Other factors are not so easily managed. Murray is the man from Quiet Central and wherever he has played in his career he has invariably been able to ramble in peace, with only occasional demands for autographs and photographs. This time, his face will be plastered all over New York. He goes to Flushing Meadows fit and happy, a returning champion, which is a new sensation for him at this level. Did he think the heightened attention he is bound to receive could prevent him indulging in his favoured lone walks through the streets of Manhattan?
The anticipation this time, however, the combined rush of raising his level and accepting the challenge of a similar elevation in the quality of his rivals’ tennis, surely will be different than on his previous 10 visits.
“Yeah, obviously I will be excited. It’s going to be a new experience for me. At this stage of my career, it doesn’t happen too often where you’re doing something for the first time, so I’ll look forward to that and hopefully deal with it OK. I’m glad I’ve played 10 matches, including the doubles, the past couple of weeks. That’s decent. It could have been better, but it definitely could have been worse as well. Going in there with a decent amount of matches is good.”
Life is rarely smooth for Murray, who lives on the edge of his emotions on court, but he has had a calm enough fortnight since coming back to the game, and away from the battle he gives no hint of anxiety. That has not always been the case.
With the sort of inverse serendipity that seems to be a creeping phenomenon on the Tour this year, Novak Djokovic went out of the tournament shortly before Murray did (and Roger Federer would join them hours later after a rousing three-setter against Nadal that inspired sleeping memories of their rivalry).
They all hate losing, but in warm-up tournaments they can live with the experience. Murray, if anything, took heart from Djokovic’s loss to John Isner. And what did he make of Nadal’s rather extraordinary run of results since returning to tennis after a seven-month lay-off through injury — especially on the hard courts one would expect to put the greatest strain on his suspect knees?
“You’ve got to remember the year before he’d won the Australian Open and the U.S. Open and numerous Masters series. I think people were more concerned [this year] about how his knees were going to respond to the hard courts, and how much he was actually going to play on them. When Rafa’s fit, or Roger’s fit, the surface doesn’t really matter. They’re going to be there or thereabouts in all the major events. I was surprised, though, by how many finals he’s made. I’m not surprised how well he’s playing, but to make so many finals in the tournaments he’s played since he’s come back is very impressive.”
A challenge for the four of them – as well as all players who consider themselves serious contenders in the slams – is to husband their resources in the weeks leading up to the ultimate test of their skill, stamina and conviction. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013