ANDY MURRAY always raises his game when the Grand Slams come to town, but on the eve of the defence of his US Open title Tim Henman admits that might not be enough this time around.
Last week Murray slipped back to No. 3 in the world rankings as the revitalised Rafael Nadal continued his stellar 2013 season. The Spaniard has only lost three matches all year and goes into New York next week as Henman’s stand-out favourite to claim his second US Open title.
But write off Murray at your peril, despite disappointing early defeats in both Montreal and Cincinnati this month, the 26-year-old has made the final of the last four Grand Slams he has contested. And as the defending Wimbledon, US Open and Olympic champion, the Scotsman is clearly developing a taste for the big time.
But according to Henman, a four-time Wimbledon semi-finalist, his reign as king of Flushing Meadows may well be at an end.
“Andy has had a little bit of a slow start on the hard courts but he is there as defending champion,” said Henman, who is the ambassador for HSBC Road to Wimbledon, the UK’s largest junior grass tournament.
“Now he has got two slams I definitely see him going on and adding more because he is that good – I think this is his time. Novak Djokovic, Murray and Nadal I definitely see dominating the majors in years to come.
“But I would probably say Nadal is the favourite for the US Open right now. He is not number one in the world but he is the best player in the world this year – it is phenomenal he has only lost three matches.
“I would probably give him the edge. There’s no doubt that right now, Nadal is in the driving seat when you look at this year’s rankings.
“Hard court is probably Andy’s best surface and I think after Wimbledon it was always going to take some time to get back into it. It was obviously such a huge month and huge achievement, he had a couple of weeks off where he didn’t do anything and it takes a little bit of time to get back into that rhythm on the match court.
“It just goes to show just how high the standard is. If you’re not quite on your game, you’ll lose. I think it almost magnifies the achievement of how well he’s played, obviously winning Wimbledon.”
Last year’s US Open was Murray’s first Grand Slam win after four previous final defeats.
And since that moment, barring a back injury that ruled him out of the French Open, Murray has been at the business end of every Grand Slam he has contested.
And while his form outside the majors remains inconsistent, Henman insists that his preparation for tournaments remains near-enough perfect.
“When you look at how consistent Djokovic has been the rankings don’t lie, it’s amazing how well Andy’s played in the Grand Slams but when you look at how he’s played in the Masters Series, his results haven’t been as good as Djokovic or Nadal,” he added.
“And that’s why you see that he’s won two Grand Slams and he was the Olympic champion but he’s still 3000 points behind in the rankings. Saying that, his performance in the Grand Slams has been phenomenal, how consistent he’s been in the finals over the last four he’s played, from where I sit Murray’s just got to keep doing more of the same.
“He’s doing all the right things, he’s got the right team around him and he can hopefully carry on winning things.”
And while Murray himself is the first to admit that the world No. 1 ranking is not a main target of his Henman would like to see his friend reach that goal.
“He’s number three at the moment and I’ve always felt at some stage that he will be world number one,” he added.
It’s another huge task given the era he plays in, because the standard and the competition are so tough. I wouldn’t necessarily think it’s something he will be focusing on so much because it’s his performance that he’s got to concentrate on.
“You can look at all those sorts of things and you can look at statistics, you can look at them until you’re blue in the face but I don’t think that he’s that interested in those things.
“He just has to keep doing the right things, to keep playing the right way; the ranking will take care of itself.”
n Tim Henman is an Ambassador for HSBC, sponsor of the HSBC Road to Wimbledon National 14 & under Challenge, the UK’s largest national junior grass court tournament. The HSBC Road to Wimbledon National 14 & under Challenge forms part of HSBC’s investment in the stars of the future.
• Andy Murray will have to wait until the last moment to begin the defence of his US Open title but Laura Robson and Dan Evans are both in first-round action in New York later today.
Murray does not expect to play his first-round match against France’s Michael Llodra until Wednesday.
Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer play today, with Nadal taking on American Ryan Harrison and Federer meeting Slovenia’s Grega Zemlja in the night session on Arthur Ashe. Robson plays in the first match on Court 17 against Spain’s Lourdes Dominguez Lino, who has proved a tricky opponent for the British No. 1 in the past.
Robson is seeded for the first time at a grand slam at 30 and has a lot of ranking points to defend after reaching the fourth round last year. The 19-year-old has missed the last three tournaments with a wrist injury and only started practising fully a few days ago. Robson has played just two matches since reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon. She said: “I felt at Wimbledon I wasn’t playing my best tennis. I played really well against (Maria) Kirilenko and after that it was some scrappy wins. That gave me confidence in that I don’t necessarily have to be playing my best tennis to get through these matches.”