There was once a magician, who astounded both expert and enemy with a creative wand that wove an intricate web of aesthetic brilliance. Miloslav Mecir left opponents baffled with his artistic genius, even as he had spectators hanging on to his strings out of sheer infatuation. While he used it to good effect to master the moment, he just could not muster enough of them together to achieve a Grand Slam title despite reaching the finals on two occasions. Like a cursed magician he trudged away into the sunset without having brought his considerable genius to fruition on the biggest stages in tennis. It is a story similar to that of Andy Murray – a sharp mind and a versatile game that could send any player to the cleaners on his day has not so far been enough to bring him his first taste of the much coveted Major title.
Mecir and Murray are in rarefied company, but not one that is too celebrated. Just as Mecir did in 1988, the Scot underlined his pedigree by winning the gold medal this year at the Olympics in Wimbledon under the taxing glare of his pining countrymen. As a player who has been consistently in the top four since 2008 and having reached as many as three grand slam finals, it must be uncomfortable to face the awkward question time and again. But then it is the curse of the club – Frank Riseley, Frank Hunter, Harry Hopman, Bunny Austin and Eric Sturgess are all three time finalists just like Murray without ever winning the big title.
Of course, Murray is only 25 and has a few years left to ensure that he takes an honourable exit from that exclusive but undesirable club. Unfortunately for Murray, even though he has a winning 9-8 record against Roger Federer, the losses have come at the most inopportune times. Murray made the finals at the 2008 US Open, the Australian Open in 2010 & Wimbledon in 2012. Each time he found Federer across the net with unfailing regularity, and he went on to lose all three finals to the Swiss maestro.
The unrelenting consistency of the modern tennis gladiators has meant that the troika at the top have swept everything in sight – Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have combined to win 29 of the past 30 Grand Slam events. This kind of iron-fisted dominance is probably unparalleled in the history of the game. Murray has been their constant companion at the top of the rankings, but has never been able to break the iron-clad grip of his three contemporaries on the silverware that truly matters to the game and the players.
The victory at the Olympics has sparked renewed excitement among British fans that Murray could finally exorcise the ghost of Fred Perry, who continues to haunt them on the islands as the last man to have won a Grand Slam title, when he won his 8th and final Grand Slam of his illustrious career at the US Open in 1936. Seventy-six years is a long time by any yardstick and Murray inherited the millstone after Tim Henman carried it valiantly around his shoulder for the duration of his career. To his credit, Murray has been far more consistent and successful compared to his senior. Ironically, it is the smell of that very success which makes it poignant for the British each time Murray falters with the tape in sight.
The absence of Rafael Nadal, who has been laid low by the recurrence of tendonitis in his knees, throws open a few possibilities at least in one half of the draw. It also presents Murray the opportunity to step up to the plate and deliver on his long held promise. One would have expected Murray to gain in confidence after handing convincing defeats to both Djokovic and Federer on his way to the much-celebrated gold medal at the Olympics. Surprisingly though, he seems to have fallen into the vacuum that often sucks the Scot into its vicious vortex. It could have been fatigue that caused him to pull out of the Rogers Cup after playing a single match. But then, he suffered an unexpected straight-sets loss at the hands of Jeremy Chardy in Cincinnati, raising questions about his ability to sustain the momentum from the Olympic success.
When the players gather around Corona Park in Queens next week, it shall be far from a walk in the garden for Murray. In fact, the Scot might need an encore of his exploits at the Olympics since his two main rivals will rest on either side of the card. Of course, the outside bets such as Tomas Berdych, Richard Gasquet and maybe even Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori on their day may also want to script some of their own heroics.
Besides, the two big favorites – Djokovic and Federer – looked in irrepressible form during the Masters series events leading to the final Major of the year. The defending champion set aside the setbacks during the summer in Paris and London to emerge victorious in Toronto before falling in the Cincinnati finals to Federer. And the Swiss is showing no signs of slowing down despite turning 31 – in fact, he went on to celebrate the milestone with his fifth title at the tournament.
Irrespective of what his counterparts do, Murray will need to bring his tools on court at their sharpest. Murray has a multi-dimensional game that is built around his tireless retrieval skills, best-in-class returns and a devastating backhand. Unfortunately for the Scot, his strength turns into his weakness as he slips into the safety of his defensive game, allowing his opponents to dictate the pace and course of the game. As he has been doing a little more recently under the tutelage of Ivan Lendl, the world No. 4 will need to step in on the baseline and attack the ball enough to bring the ad-court into play to stretch and smother rivals with his brilliant backhand.
For Murray, the opportunity is there for the taking – whether he will resort to slicing and letting it slip away or show some faith to attack and roll over his opponents will determine his destiny. Will he or won’t he – that’s the million dollar question, maybe more so considering the immense pot available to the winner’s circle at Flushing Meadows. And if it does not turn out as well as planned, Murray can always take shelter in the wisdom of Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote, “on the mountains of truth you can never climb in vain: either you will reach a point higher up today, or you will be training your powers so that you will be able to climb higher tomorrow.” There is always the next Major. But sooner rather than later, Murray needs to decide if he shall let passion reign or remain stifled by the albatross that hangs around his neck.