This is the business end of the tennis season for Andy Murray. Three Grand Slams and the Olympic Games in London have come and gone. A semi-final in Australia, a quarter-final at Roland Garros and then, of course, that gut-wrenching loss to Roger Federer at Wimbledon, followed weeks later by unadulterated joy in defeating the same man, on the same court, to seal Olympic gold.
The Dunblane-born, Craiglockhart-coached Scot therefore goes into the US Open in the form of his life. Today is the beginning of a massive period in his already sparkling career. He begins the defence of the Cincinnati Masters, which holds plenty of prestige and 1000 ranking points, and then, on August 27, he embarks on his quest to win his first Grand Slam title at Flushing Meadows. The US Open offers his last chance to end his Slam hoodoo this year.
Brad Gilbert, his former coach, feels that this is his time. It’s an oft-put statement about the world No. 3 and Scotland’s best tennis player, but the American believes he is in the right “time frame” to win a Slam.
“The last time we had four different winners of all the majors was back in 2003,” Gilbert said in an exclusive interview with the Evening News. “This could be the year to change that stat [referring to Novak Djokovic’s success at the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal’s French Open crown and Federer’s win at SW19].
“Andy’s gone on to win the Olympics and has performed really well there. He’s won a massive honour in the game. As long as his body is good, he’s ready to make the step up.
“It’s his favourite surface. There’s no doubt the US Open suits his game.
Murray has made the US Open final before. It was his maiden appearance in a Slam showpiece, although the 2008 final was a damp squib for him, losing meekly to Federer in straight sets. Much has changed since then. He’s been in the final of the Australian Open final twice and Wimbledon once, before enthralling the nation with his Olympic gold a few weeks ago.
America has long been Murray’s comfort zone. He trains in Miami and likes the lifestyle and chutzpah of US sports. The quick, bright blue plexipave courts suit his game, and the raucous atmosphere and booming music brings out his best.
The question is certainly not about talent. Not as far as Gilbert, pictured below, is concerned. The 50-year-old Californian is an authority on tennis, so he’s man to take heed of. He coached Murray for 17 months, from June 2006 until November 2007, but before then he piloted Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick to US Open titles.
“As soon as I got on the practice court, I knew Andy had it in him to win a Slam. He’s got so much talent,” said Gilbert. “Once one Slam comes, I’m pretty sure two and three will follow on quite quickly. His time frame is now. He’s at the right age and in the right form to win.”
Murray enters the summer American hard court swing in good nick. He did participate in the Toronto Masters last week, but participate is really all he did. Physically and mentally drained from winning gold just days before, he took to the court in Canada in his second-round tie with Flavio Cipolla a tired man. He won, but tweaked his knee and withdrew from the event a day later. With Milos Raonic and John Isner, two brutish, thuggish servers who would have made Murray dig deep for a win standing in his path, pulling out was a wise move.
“Physically, Andy feels good. It was one little move in the Flavio Cipolla match that tweaked his knee. It’s more a precautionary move than anything else to pull out,” explained Gilbert, who was in Toronto working for American TV.
Those words will soothe any nerves over fitness. Murray, of course, is no stranger to injuries. However, at Wimbledon – both in the Championships and in the Olympics – Murray looked physically superb. It was that strength and stamina that helped him overcome his loss at SW19 to Federer and settle the scores in the Olympics.
That feat impressed his former coach no end. Gilbert himself won bronze in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and fully believes that Murray’s success on the grass could be the catalyst to taking that final step.
“The Olympics was one of my greatest experiences as a tennis player. To go out and represent your country is a massive thing,” he said. “I won bronze and whenever I walk past my trophy room, I look at and think, ‘what if I had gone that one step further and got gold or silver’. So it’s kind of mixed. Andy doesn’t have that. He’s got the good experience of winning gold fresh in his mind.
“I had my best year on Tour after the Olympics, so success there can take you on.”
Gilbert also noted the impact of the crowd. Certainly, the atmosphere on Centre Court had more of an American feel to it. Gilbert hopes that ambience will be replicated when Murray returns to Wimbledon next year. “What I really liked about the Olympics was the crowd. It was good to see the fans ‘rocking’, which we don’t normally get at Wimbledon. I’d like to see that next year at Wimbledon, the crowd making a bit more noise and getting behind him like that,” he said.
For now, though, thoughts are purely focused on events across the pond. Murray begins his defence of Cincinnati against Sam Querrey – ironically, a player Gilbert does consultancy work for – and after that event, it’ll be full speed ahead into Flushing Meadows.
Gilbert didn’t manage to take a fledgling Murray to a Slam final as a coach, but he does feel he’s employed the right man in the laid-back, calm Czech Ivan Lendl to accommodate his corner. Lendl didn’t win a Slam until his fifth attempt. If Murray makes the final in New York, it’ll be his fifth at Slam level.
“When I first heard that he’d joined up with Ivan Lendl, I thought: ‘great news’. He’s the man that can help Andy make that step up,” the 51-year-old said. “He’s got that experience of not having won a major until later on in his career and he’ll be able to will Andy on, because he’ll know how he’s feeling and what he’s going through.”
Murray may be in the form of his life, but he still has the same old obstacles. Djokovic and Federer won’t be serving up that first Slam on a silver platter, and although Nadal, troubled by tendonitis in his knee, is a doubt for the Open, Murray will still have to slay one of the top two for him to glean success.
“Murray’s unfortunate in some ways in that he’s around with three of the best players of all time in Djokovic, Nadal and Federer. He’ll be desperate to win one because he’ll be glad to stop people asking about it,” added Gilbert. “A great American basketball player called Charles Barkley once joked to his mum that he wished he was born five years later, because then he wouldn’t be in the shadow of Michael Jordan. Andy’s got the same problem. In a different era, Barkley would have been the best player in the world. It’s the same for Andy.”
It’s not just the big boys who will be standing in his way. Juan Martin Del Potro, US Open champion in 2009, is in good form after winning bronze in London, while David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Janko Tipsarevic and Gilbert’s tip for a good run, Isner, can all cause problems.
“I always find it hard to really predict things until I see the draw,” said Gilbert. “There are so many variables. The weather conditions can vary a lot at Flushing Meadows. The court is not always the same. It can be high-bouncing one day and then really slow the next.
“But Andy’s at the door of the house. He’s had his hands on the window, he’s on the verge of it. He’s one of the few guys who can win it. He’s ready to win a Slam.”