IT has been many a long year since Andy Murray played second fiddle to his countrymen and women at a major championships but this year’s US Open has been different.
On Saturday, while Evans was thrilling the New Yorkers for more than four hours as he took Stan Wawrinka to five sets, Murray was plodding his way past Paolo Lorenzi, the world No 40 from Italy. He had a game plan but promptly forgot it as the match began while his first serve had been left on the practice court. It was hard work but there was never any doubt that he would claim his victory (he won 7-6, 5-7, 6-2, 6-3); it was just that it was taking a bit longer than anticipated.
“I expected a tough match,” Murray said. “I expected long rallies. I’m just disappointed with the amount of errors I made. I was quite impatient at times. That cost me in the first and second sets.
“When I did sort of play like I was planning on when I went out there, to be more patient, wait for the right balls to go for, I played much, much better, dictated more of the points. I wasn’t going for too much.
“The unforced errors came down significantly and the winners went up. The third and fourth sets were comfortable. Obviously the first two were extremely, extremely tough.”
As a veteran of the grand slam circuit, Murray knows that what happens in the first week is irrelevant once the business end of the tournament approaches. He has not wasted too much energy in the opening rounds, he knows what he needs to improve and now the draw has been whittled down to just 16 contenders, he is facing old and familiar foes.
Today he faces Grigor Dimitrov for the tenth time in his career. He leads the rivalry 6-3 but last time they met, it was Dimitrov who came out on top. Still, that was at the Miami Open back in March when Murray was still trying to find his feet after taking the whole of February off after the birth of his daughter – it was not his finest hour by any stretch of the imagination. Dimitrov’s win before that was in 2014 in the Wimbledon quarter-finals when the Scot was still on the comeback route from his back surgery at the end of the previous year.
“He’s a very good player, obviously,” Murray said. “He does a lot of things well on the court. He has good feel, moves well. He’s obviously not played his best the last 18 months or so, but definitely the last few weeks has been playing very well, getting back to a level that he’s capable of playing at. It will be another tough one; I expect it to be very hard. I’ll be ready for that. I’ll need to play better than today if I want to win that.”
Two years ago, Dimitrov, pictured right, was leading the charge of the new generation, forcing his way into the top ten and making his claim as a potential grand slam champion. But then his progress came to a grinding halt, his ranking slipped backwards and he seemed to have lost his way.
That slide has been halted by Dani Vallverdu, Murray’s former coach, who has been working with the Bulgarian this summer. At the last two Masters 1000 events he had solid results – a quarter-final in Toronto and a semi-final in Cincinnati – and today’s match is his first fourth-round showing at a grand slam since the start of last year.
When Vallverdu left the Murray camp at the end of 2014, he joined forces with Tomas Berdych and, lo and behold, within a couple of weeks Murray was playing Berdych in the semi-finals of the Australian Open. It was not an easy first encounter between the player and former coach, especially as Vallverdu is one of Murray’s oldest friends, but since then the two have got on as well as ever.
“I think that first match was awkward for sure,” Murray said. “He was one of my best friends and the media were trying to make it out like it was a grudge match. There was a lot of different emotions going on in that match and I thought it was a bit unfair. But we do go out for dinner. We went out for lunch the first day we got here. We flew together here from Cincinnati. I just don’t talk to him about my tennis, but I didn’t used to talk to him about my tennis before he started coaching me either, really.”
No one has been talking about Murray’s tennis much this past week – it is the other British players who have impressed with their results. Not that Murray minds being in the shadows; he is enjoying their success as much as everyone else.
“Dan is a really good player and so is Jo,” he said. “That’s why they are where they are. They all have a lot of strengths. Dan’s an extremely good mover, very talented guy, great feel, great hands. Kyle has huge weapons on the court. And Jo doesn’t have many weaknesses.
“They’re very different players, different game styles, but they’re all really good.
“Whether all of them always believed that or not, I don’t know. But they certainly do now, backing themselves in the biggest tournaments on the biggest stages.
“It’s great for British tennis.”
But now it is time for Murray to step out of their shadow. The second week of the US Open beckons and Murray has work to do.