Now is the time for Andy Murray to strike.
With Rafael Nadal out of the picture, the 27-year-old Murray can use the site of his first-career Grand Slam in New York to turn around what has been a back-and-forth battle with form all season.
Remember, though, that it was just two seasons ago that Murray upended Novak Djokovic to win the U.S. Open. But this year, he lost to Nadal in Rome after leading 4-2 in the deciding set and then fell to the Spaniard again in straight sets at Roland Garros.
So it helps that Nadal is out, as Kevin Palmer of ESPN muses:
Nadal's US Open pull out is a big break for @andy_murray. Top 8 seeding assured and a passage to the quarter finals at least. Shame for Rafa— Kevin Palmer (@kpsundayworld) August 18, 2014
That by no means is meant to suggest the path will be easy—the man has to wake up.
After winning at Wimbledon in 2013 season to become the first man from Great Britain to do so since 1936, Murray has won all of zero times. He reached the quarterfinals in two Grand Slams and the semifinals once—the aforementioned shellacking on Nadal's turf.
This year, the draw is anything but kind to Murray in New York. While Roger Federer has what appears to be a cakewalk—on paper, at least—Murray has been shoved onto the side of the bracket that includes No. 1 Djokovic and a host of other talented names.
Murray himself understands the increasing parity of the sport and that any draw would have been a challenge, as captured by Kevin Mitchell of The Guardian:
“It’s an open tour right now,” he said. “You have a lot of younger guys playing very well, and also a few of the more experienced players picking up big wins. The standard on the tour is very high, there are no easy matches and it is difficult to reach the semi-final or final of a tournament let alone win a title.”
But even Murray could not have fathomed such a ridiculous draw result. He seems destined for an encounter with Djokovic in the quarterfinals. A duel against Stan Wawrinka or Milos Raonic would surely follow in the semifinals.
Heck, even the opening rounds are no sure thing. Robin Haase is his first-round opponent, and one who took him to five sets a few years back. Radek Stepanek is no slouch in the next round, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is in somewhat dominant form after having knocked off Djokovic lately and coming from behind to upset Murray.
The saving grace is that, since his Wimbledon triumph, Djokovic has been on a streak of miserable form. It comes at an opportune time for Murray, who says he is as healthy as he has ever been since back surgery, per Mitchell:
It’s not much of a secret that my back had been troubling me for 18 months or so before I decided to take some time out and have the operation.
It took me a little bit longer than expected to get back to full fitness and be able to train at 100% but thankfully I’m now there. I worked incredibly hard in my last Miami training block and feel like I’m in the best shape I have been for a long time.
Who wins the U.S. Open?
Pair newfound health with the appointment of coach Amelie Mauresmo, and well, anything is possible for Murray.
It was bound to take some time for Murray to recover from a four-month hiatus and the loss of a coach. Sprinkle in a dash of desperation at the year's final Grand Slam and a door cracked open a tad wider than usual with Nadal out of the picture, and Murray's return to form does not have a more obvious launching pad this season.
The body will follow if the mind is sharp. Murray needs a killer instinct once more, and the allure of a Grand Slam while healthy is as motivating as it gets. The worst thing anyone can do—other players included—is count him out at this stage of the season.