After a stunning defeat to Kei Nishikori, Andy Murray finds himself stuck with the familiar refrain uttered by many who fall short in their sports endeavors: Wait until next year.
Nishikori defeated Murray 1-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5 in the quarterfinals of the 2016 U.S. Open, ending Murray's bid to overtake Novak Djokovic in the ATP World Tour singles race for most points this year. The loss also makes it next to impossible for Murray to chase down the No. 1 ranking this year.
What a missed opportunity. Djokovic entered the U.S. Open looking more vulnerable than he has at any time in the last two years. Murray, however, came into the U.S. Open having won Wimbledon and the gold medal at the Summer Olympics.
Had he won the U.S. Open, Murray would have finished the Slam season with the same number of major titles as Djokovic won this year. It would also mark the first time that Murray had won two Slams in one year.
Instead, Murray leaves Flushing Meadows cemented at No. 2, his career high. Never holding the No. 1 slot distinguishes him from the rest of the Big Four.
Since his inclusion in the Big Four, Murray has been staring up at Djokovic, Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal as they took turns at the top.
Djokovic has held the No. 1 ranking for 113 consecutive weeks. By the end of last year, when he won three Grand Slam titles, Djokovic had extended his lead at the top.
Murray trailed Djokovic by 5,535 points heading into the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam this year. Djokovic is the defending champion at the U.S. Open and had 2,000 points to defend. Murray, however, lost in the fourth round last year. This was his best chance to slice into Djokovic's massive lead.
If Murray could pull off a win at Flushing Meadows, he'd go into the fall season within striking distance of Djokovic, something that seemed next to impossible earlier this year when all the buzz centered around the Serbian's capturing a Calendar Slam.
Riding the momentum he gained this summer, Murray sensed the opportunity at hand and told Vicki Hodges of the Telegraph, "It's definitely a goal. It's something I spoke to my team about, something I chatted to Ivan about. I would love to get to No 1, for sure, and the way to do that is to show up every week and be focused on that event."
After the Olympics, British media began contemplating scenarios that would see Murray supplant Djokovic at No. 1.
"Assuming Djokovic sees off a weakened field in Toronto, Murray must surely defeat his nemesis in Cincinnati and then New York if he is to have any chance of capturing the second-ending No 1 spot, with the Olympics potential being key to maintaining momentum," wrote Tim Clement, of Sky Sports.
Djokovic withdrew from Cincinnati with a wrist injury. Murray reached the final there and lost to Marin Cilic. Still, Murray arrived at the U.S. Open with oddsmakers giving him a 2-1 chance to win, just behind Djokovic at 10-11.
With the stage set, Murray appeared headed for a showdown with Djokovic. His 6-1 start made it seem like he'd make quick work of Nishikori.
Then a gong sounded, the rains came and Murray unraveled.
Murray appeared to let malfunctioning audio equipment distract him out of the match. While in the middle of a rally, a gong-like sound reverberated through Arthur Ashe Stadium. The chair umpire instructed the players to replay the point. Murray objected, claiming the chair umpire had earlier said they would play through such a noise.
Agitated, Murray barked and pouted around the court and during changeovers.
Cameras even caught Murray taking a swipe at a butterfly on the court. As his lead evaporated, Nishikori seemed invigorated.
Murray committed 46 unforced errors, 25 in the last two sets.
"This was profligacy on a grand scale. Murray needed to rediscover the blinding consistency of the first set, when he looked like running away with the match. Instead he was hanging on," the Guardian's Kevin Mitchell wrote.
In his post-match press conference, Murray told reporters, "I have not let anyone down. I tried my best. I fought as hard as I could with what I had today...You know, if someone had offered me the summer that I have had before Wimbledon, I probably would have signed for that...And, yeah, I'm happy with how it's gone. There's just a few things I could do differently next time."
Next time will be 2017, when Murray has three Grand Slam finals and a Wimbledon title to defend. He can gnaw at Djokovic's lead in the fall and at the ATP finals in London. However, this was as big an opportunity as Murray's had during Djokovic's dominant run.
One stunning defeat and a life-long dream is deferred, at least for this year.