AND now comes the real test. For nine months, Andy Murray has been searching for the sort of form, both physical and mental, that took him to seven grand slam finals and won him two major trophies and now, as soon as he has found the merest hint of it, the US Open draw pitches him against Novak Djokovic.
Tonight he must try and find a way past the world No 1 in a match that he knows will be brutal and bruising. They have played 20 times before (Djokovic leads 12-8) and it has never been easy. Sometimes, the victory is achieved in straight sets – like the Wimbledon final last year – but, even then, the duel is fierce and ferocious. Even with championship points on his racket, Murray knew he dare not blink on Centre Court or his oldest foe, a rivalry that goes back to their junior days, would be at his throat and ready to snatch the Wimbledon title from his grasp.
At least Murray knows that he is playing his best tennis of the season so far. His win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Monday night was the clearest sign yet that the Scot is getting back to the top of his game. He was physically strong against the Frenchman, he was mentally focused (even if he did have a few moments of fury when he dropped his serve) and he was aggressive. He will need to be all of that and more if he is to stop Djokovic but at least the Tsonga match proved to Murray that he has a chance. And if he beats Djokovic, the possibilities are endless.
“I don’t feel like I’m that far away from playing my best tennis,” he said. “It’s still obviously a long way from trying to win the tournament, but it’s only nine sets now, three matches, and you just try and take it one set at a time. Maybe you’re five, six days away from potentially winning another grand slam. I know there is a lot of work to be done between now and then. But putting everything out there on the courts, last slam of the year, yeah, hopefully I can play well.
“I hadn’t closed out those matches, whether it was against Jo or whoever, this year. It happened a few times, but I have also won quite a few matches this year, as well. It wasn’t like every time I stepped on the court I couldn’t close out a match. It was just happening from time to time – and a few times too often this year – so it was nice to win another one with no stress.”
There will be stress against Djokovic, though. The Serb has eased his way through to the quarter-finals without dropping a set and is looking lean and hungry again. Beating Roger Federer to win Wimbledon took a huge emotional toll. Until that afternoon, Djokovic had not won a grand slam title in 18 months and had lost five of his last six major finals; he had started to believe that he had forgotten how to win. To lift the Wimbledon trophy meant the world to him and he lost his way for a few weeks after that.
Now, though, he has had time to work and to refocus and he has scythed through the opposition on his way to tonight’s match. But if the thought of facing Djokovic in his pomp may frighten some, Murray is relishing another showdown with his old pal.
“I think that’s really why we play the game,” Murray said. “That’s what you put the work in for, so that when you come to these events, and you do have to play against the best players, that you’re ready. As much as it’s incredibly tough and challenging, the match, that’s what you enjoy. Playing on Wednesday night against the No 1 player in the world is exciting.
If you aren’t getting motivated or pumped for those matches, then that’s when there’s a problem and it’s time to maybe stop.
“I would say we play a fairly similar style, and I think that’s why a lot of the matches have been long games, long rallies, long points, because we do a lot of the same things well.
“I mean, obviously there’s tactics that you go into the match with, and then you make adjustments when the match starts. And it also depends on the conditions. If it’s windy, that changes things, as well, the way that you approach it and sort of shots you’re going to try and hit to. So I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do on Wednesday, but by the time I get on the court I’ll have a good idea.”
Sitting quietly at the side of the court will be Amelie Mauresmo. When Murray was beating Djokovic to win his two grand slam titles, he had the impassive figure of Ivan Lendl to look up to in the players’ box (which may or may not have been reassuring); with Mauresmo, he has a kindlier face to turn to but an equally impassive mentor.
She does not get flustered by her charge’s occasional rants and tantrums nor is she alarmed at the colourful language sometimes aimed directly at the team. She watches, she takes note and she says her piece when the time is right.
“He is playing to beat those guys [like Djokovic],” she said. “It is definitely something he is looking forward to. He knows already these guys pretty well, being against them many, many times already, against Novak particularly.
“He knows what he has to do obviously and he also knows what he may need to improve to be able to beat him.
“His serving was better against Jo, not throughout the whole match yet, but some improvements. Movement also, releasing his shots much better also. He is getting better.”
He is certainly getting better – beating Tsonga proved that – but just how good he can be we will find out tonight.