People have talked about Andy Murray for years now as the most talented guy without a Grand Slam title. Someone who would have a few already if he hadn't been born in an era with two or three superstars.
In 2011, that talk has shifted from patient to desperate. Novak Djokovic's rise now means that Murray will almost certainly have to get through not one, but two great players in most Slam semifinals and finals.
At age 24, time is ticking but many believe that Murray still has a few seasons to notch his first Grand Slam win. Here's a bolder prediction: if Murray doesn't win either the 2011 U.S. Open or the 2012 Australian Open, he'll go down as the greatest player to never win a Slam.
Let's assess Murray's chances of finally breaking through at Flushing Meadows.
When Murray's game is on target, it's a ton of fun to watch. His ability to use every kind of pace in an offensive and defensive way is remarkable. Everything else—whether movement, fitness, net play, return of serve, or serve—is solidly world class. In short, his game fully lives up to his ranking.
Many seem to be criticizing Murray more this year than in 2009 or 2010 mostly out of justifiable frustration, but 2011 has been arguably his best season. He's made the finals, semifinals, and semifinals in the Slams, only losing to Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. They're pretty good, if you haven't heard.
More importantly, Murray has bounced back from two very tough losses at Australia and Wimbledon. After a worrisome lull following the loss in Melbourne, he bounced back to almost topple Djokovic in a marathon Rome semifinal. He then made the semifinals at the French Open despite being gimpy and on his worst surface.
Now, Murray's hard court game seems to be coming together in Cincinnati after a lengthy post-Wimbledon hangover. Seeing Murray figure out how to time his peaks and valleys better with the Slams shows that he's still hungry and looking for ways to improve his chances.
A semifinal against Nadal is looking likely in Cincinnati, so let's hope that win or lose Murray can keep the positive vibes going.
Let's stay on the topic of mindset, since it's obviously Murray's biggest issue.
Murray can switch from self-assured aggression to depressed defensiveness on a dime. He has a perfectionist streak that makes every mistake linger and cloud his judgment. Where Nadal can seemingly shrug off anything (except against Djokovic), Murray seems to stalk the court under the weight of expectation; both the world's and his own.
The result is that he usually shrinks into a very defensive mode of play and an abandonment of his tactical, thinking-man's game. Murray has to accept that he'll make mistakes and that his opponents in the top three will go through frustrating streaks of brilliance.
Murray, too, has been occasionally brilliant in all his high profile losses this year. That first set at Wimbledon showed just how much game he has and might have been the best tennis he ever played.
The big question now is whether that level can be stretched over best-of-five matches on consecutive days against (most likely) Djokovic and Nadal. That is his task at the U.S. Open, and if it seems impossible just remember: at one time we had the same questions about Djokovic.
You could put Murray's celebratory bicep flex in this category since it still makes an occasional awkward appearance. Throw in that tendency to talk to and occasionally whack himself with the racket when he's frustrated. Yes, Andy can come off as a bit of a tool sometimes.
But setting that aside and focusing on just the tennis, you'd have to cite Murray's occasionally erratic serve and right leg as potential liabilities this season. Murray's first serve seems the most prone to cracking under pressure in big moments in 2011. Usually his forehand wins that award, and it still can go off too. His serve has to be clicking in New York for him to claim the title.
And then there's that leg. A rolled ankle in Roland Garros, a tweaked groin at Wimbledon, and that problem-prone knee. Hard courts beat up the body, but to win Murray can't afford even the slightest doubt about his movement.
This year, he can't afford to have any doubts at all.