It was reminiscent of the 2009 Australian Open: A certain Scot was declared a strong favourite for the title. A certain Swiss smiled when asked whether he thought a certain Scot should have been made a favourite for the title. A certain Scot exited in the fourth round.
However, the exit of Andy Murray from this year’s US Open was much more lacklustre in its manner than his departure from Melbourne earlier this year. Whereas Murray’s departure in Oz involved a thrilling five-set encounter with Fernando Verdasco, New York saw a dismal straight-sets defeat at the hands of Marin Cilic.
The newly crowned world No. 2 had beaten Cilic with some ease in their two previous encounters. It is therefore safe to say that many did not exactly consider the young Croat with the big serve to be a huge threat to the Scot.
Everything pointed to Murray taking the match pretty comfortably: He recently won the Montreal Masters, made the semifinals in Cincinnati, and now stands as second only to Roger “Greatest of All Time” Federer in the rankings.
Having made the finals in New York last year and having had his best year on tour, it looked like the time had finally arrived for Murray to win his maiden Slam.
In comparison, Cilic had not had the best hardcourt results coming into the Open. Although he is a rising star on the men’s circuit, the 20-year-old Croat made early exits in Washington, Montreal, and Cincinnati.
This makes Murray’s exit the most shocking of the tournament so far (yes, even more shocking than the departure of Dinara Safina). In fact, there have only really been two big shocks on the men’s side in this year’s US Open, and both shocks have involved players called Andy.
The first set of the match was a close-run affair. However, at 5-4 Murray failed to capitalise on two set points, marking the way for a Croatian comeback. Cilic grabbed the opportunity with both hands by breaking Murray in the next game and then closing out the set, 7-5.
After that, things went from bad to worse for Murray. The Scot, who looked out of sorts throughout the match, then lost his next two service games to gift Cilic a 4-0 lead.
Admittedly, the Croat was playing some phenomenal tennis, using his powerful serve and booming forehand to take control of the point and get Murray running ragged all over the court. Murray, one of the best returners in the game, was just not being allowed to get into any of the Cilic’s service games.
Murray finally managed to get some joy with his serve in the fifth game of the second set. However, he still could not find a way to break the Cilic serve, and the second set was also a lost cause, with Cilic winning it 6-2. What was particularly shocking about this set was that Cilic was only serving 31 percent of first serves, compared to Murray’s 81 percent, yet Cilic still managed to win it comfortably.
The third set went pretty much the same way as the second. Although the British No. 1 looked lethargic, many of his fans were still waiting for the miracle comeback in the style of his famous fourth-round meeting with Gasquet at Wimbledon. But that was not to happen.
Cilic did not let up, and Murray was not displaying his usual signs of urgency. The Scot did not smash his hand against his racket or shout at himself at all. There was no roaring. There was no bellowing. In fact, it seemed as though he was resigned to his fate.
Cilic, who has never been further than the fourth round of a Slam, again broke Murray twice in the third set. He then held his nerve to serve out the match and win it 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 in two hours and eight minutes.
So Britain’s hopes for a Slam winner have once again been put on hold.
It was certainly a bad day at the office for the British No. 1, who, along with possibly suffering a left wrist injury, generally looked sluggish and uninspired out on court. He managed to hit only 13 winners compared to the 35 coming off the No. 16 seed’s racket.
After this match the questions about whether Murray can really win a Slam are bound to resurface: Can he win with such a defensive style of play? Does he have the mental strength to win a Slam? Is he fit enough to win seven best-of-five matches? Is he just a Masters event-type player? Has the hunter become the hunted? Is the pressure getting to him? Are there just too many great players on the men’s tour at the moment? Won't it just get harder as more time passes by?
The list goes on...
The boy is still only 22 years old and has just had the best year of his career. This relatively early exit from his favourite Slam is sure to be a big disappointment for Andy and his many fans, but he is nothing if not a fighter.
We may not have witnessed his fierce competitiveness in this particular encounter, but he is bound to go away and learn from this experience and come back stronger. After all, Rome was not built in a day!
Meanwhile, Juan Martin Del Potro awaits Marin Cilic in the quarterfinals. The match promises to be an interesting battle between two of the tallest guys on the tour, with both 20-year-old men standing at a towering 6'6".
(Interesting fact: Murray has performed better in the Slams on grass and clay than in either of those played on hardcourt. Weird!)