Summer is heating up, which means it is time for Andy Murray to get into championship form. After a year of back troubles, surgery and comeback, the Scottish star’s eyes will light up when he sees Canada, Cincinnati and New York on the itinerary. This is Murray time.
The North American hard courts tour is an important time for Murray, and perhaps another career crossroads that could point him toward added Grand Slam success. Alternatively, it could underscore more of his troubles: Can he win big titles without coach Ivan Lendl? Is it too much for him to defeat his big three rivals (Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic) and hold off younger potential stars?
Murray has been through the rigors of career pressure. He will not be daunted by the challenges ahead. But what is it that he needs in order to be a top favorite once again?
2006 Flashback: Murray Arrives
The mighty Federer was in the middle of perhaps his greatest season ever. He was destined to post a 92-5 record including major titles at Australia, Wimbledon and New York. He would lose four times to Nadal, the last one being the French Open final. From there, Federer would play 49 matches and only lose once.
Meanwhile, few tennis fans outside of the UK had heard of Murray. He was 19 years old and recently teamed with coach Brad Gilbert. For most of the year, his ranking hovered in the 40s as he fought his way through Davis Cup ties and niggling injuries.
Success was tough to corner, and Murray was a first-round casualty at Australia, Miami, Monte Carlo, Rome and Paris. He was not exactly a world beater anywhere else, either, but he showed promise with a fourth-round visit to Wimbledon.
And then the clouds burst.
Murray’s timing in North America was terrific during the dog days of summer, when sports journalists tried hard to find new material to supplement pre-season American football. Federer was coming and sports fans grabbed onto his star with the enthusiasm of the new social media.
Federer won the Canada Open, as expected, but the unseeded Murray came of age with huge wins. In the first round, he conquered David Ferrer.
Next he vanquished compatriot Tim Henman, a symbolic passing of the British baton, perhaps.
Then Murray crushed former major winner Carlos Moya before polishing off Jarko Nieminen to reach the semifinals. He was already showing his wonderful backhand, but the most impressive thing about watching Murray was his competitive attitude. He bore down from the baseline and acted like he belonged at the top.
Murray then lost to another young, promising player, Richard Gasquet. At the time, the American press had said more about Gasquet’s star potential than Murray’s. This result seemed according to projections, and Gasquet even took Federer to three sets in the final.
But on the faster courts of Cincinnati, Murray became a star forever, even if it was only the second round. There, he defeated Federer 7-5, 6-4 with an airtight display of defense and line-hugging groundstrokes. It snapped Federer’s 55-match winning streak on hard courts, and it was the only time all year Federer would lose before a final.
Everyone paid attention. Who was Murray? Was this just great “ugly” coaching from Coach Gilbert? Murray, for one, was ready to respond, telling BBC Sport:
Obviously this was pretty special—I wasn't expecting it to happen today. I don't think Roger played his best match, but he has such a reputation that other players think they have to hit the lines. I played a pretty perfect match but for a few games at the end of the first set.
Murray was now a Top 20 player with tennis fans eyeing his future.
Eight years later, Murray has fulfilled his potential, but it’s not enough. There are more Masters 1000 titles to win and more majors to claim.
If Canada and Cincinnati were his cradle to stardom, they should at least be sentimental stomping grounds to launch another championship surge.
Fast hard courts are his forte. Murray has excellent footwork and hand-eye coordination to counter an opponent’s big shots. His counter-punching approach thrives with the extra winners and offense the faster surfaces give to his more-natural defensive tendencies. He’s somewhat like former champion Lleyton Hewitt, needing the court’s added speed to create his offensive magic.
While clay-court players are breaking down, and the long tennis year ranks players by desire, Murray is just getting started.
He has twice won the Canada Open, Cincinnati and Shanghai. He won the 2012 U.S. Open. Fourteen of his 28 career titles have come in August, September and October.
And now Murray hopes that another championship revival is ripe for the harvest.
North America might be his second home, but there are also new challenges. Journeymen like Stanislas Wawrinka and upstarts like Grigor Dimitrov are more emboldened, not willing to roll over for past champions. They sense that the foundation to a decade of dominance might have a few cracks, and they are expressing belief that they can win big titles.
Murray must also brandish his aggressiveness more often inside the baseline. When he is playing in the zone, he is willing to risk a few more big forehands and create pressure, rather than try to absorb it like he’s wearing a black T-shirt and shorts.
Aggressive Murray plays with greater spirit and energy, even if there are occasional spats of verbal self- immolation. When he’s scrapping and fighting, he stalks the sidelines intent on owning everything in its vicinity. This is when he is willing to knock down Djokovic or fight it out with Federer. This is when he believes and plays like a Grand Slam champion.
Will he bid for the U.S. Open title? Will he rise back toward the top of the rankings? If not now, will he win big titles again? Canada and Cincinnati could be crucial to him, perhaps more so than any other player, in answering these questions.