After three days and a lengthy rain delay, Andy Murray finally began his title defense at this year’s US Open. The reigning champion at Flushing Meadows, Murray let it be known on Twitter and after beating Michael Llodra in three sets on Wednesday night that he was not at all thrilled getting such a late start to the event. A start that will now force Murray to win seven matches in 12 days if he wants to win his third Grand Slam title.
“I like playing at night,” said Murray after his late night win on Wednesday. “I like it. I just don’t think for the first round it’s ideal.”
But Murray’s delayed beginning to his New York campaign actually fits right in with the rest of his summer on the North American hard courts. Murray did not look sharp in either of the lead up events before the US Open. He found himself ousted early by a pair of big hitters – Ernests Gulbis in Montreal and then Tomas Berdych in Cincinnati. Those exits had some wondering if Murray was still recovering from a Wimbledon “hangover” after having not only at last claimed the elusive title and thus ending his nation’s 77-year wait for a UK man to raise the trophy, but the ensuing media whirlwind that didn’t stop until the Royal Baby was born.
Murray’s Wimbledon glory should have made him the “man to beat” in terms of pre-tournament picks before the US Open. Instead that status now belongs to Rafael Nadal who remains undefeated on the hard courts this season. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic is still considered, at the moment, the best hard court player on tour, and he remains a solid favorite to win a second US Open. Then you have the sentimental pick in Roger Federer who many are hoping will find a way to rise about his No. 7 seeding and prove once again he can be a threat at a major.
If this all feels familiar, you are right. Once again, despite all of his stellar accomplishments over the last 12 months, Murray is again trailing the “Big Three” in terms of conversation before the final Grand Slam of the year. Conspiracy theories will abound as to why Murray, as he did last year, got the short end of the stick regarding his opening schedule despite being the defending champion. Scheduling players involves a multitude of factors at the US Open. But by making Murray wait and wait to get started leaves the impression, although not intentional, that the event organizers still view Murray as an afterthought to the “bigger” names of Djokovic, Federer and Nadal.
Murray can change that perception by winning a second US Open title. But entering as the defending champion of a major is a new experience for the Scot, and something he admitted even he isn’t sure how he will handle. Will he just get down to “business as usual” and treat this tournament like any other? Or will he put even more pressure on himself to win it all now that the burden of having never won a major until last year is finally off of his back? For someone who admitted recently that, before he met his current coach Ivan Lendl, he didn’t truly believe he could win a major, now the question to ask Murray is where does he see himself when compared to the likes of Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer. One among equals? Or still content to be the “odd man out” in terms of being considered one of the game’s greats. Navigating his new position as a multiple major winner is something Murray appears to still be sorting out.
Perhaps it is for the best then that Murray, after a slow start this summer and late start in New York, will be allowed to fine tune his game in the next rounds without the added expectation that being the “favorite” would have brought.
Let Nadal continue to try and stay undefeated on the cement. Let Djokovic continue to answer questions about if he can beat Nadal should they meet in the finals. And let Federer continue to repeat in interviews that he still has what it takes to win one more major. Murray may be getting his US Open campaign underway “better late than never” as they say. But while he may be in the rearview mirror in terms of expectation, in the two-week mini-marathon that is a Grand Slam event, he just might be the one to pull ahead of the field on the final Monday.