ANDY Murray was positively glowing with health and wellbeing as he practised with Novak Djokovic in the warm New York sunshine yesterday.
For the first time since his comeback from back surgery, he is feeling as fit as a flea (his lung-bursting training block, completed in Miami three weeks ago, saw to that). For the first time since Ivan Lendl handed in his notice back in March, his coaching arrangements are settled now that Amélie Mauresmo has committed to the cause. Now all that Murray has to do is remember how to win tennis matches.
He has another three days to dredge up that all-important memory before the US Open begins on Monday – and he will need it if he is to make any headway at the tournament he won back in 2012. Yesterday’s draw dropped the Scot’s name into the fiercest quarter of the competition with, potentially, Djokovic to face in the quarter-finals, Stan Wawrinka, the Australian Open champion, or Milos Raonic, to play in the semis and possibly Roger Federer in the final. Murray needs to find that winning habit and find it soon.
His time on the practice courts after Wimbledon were both profitable and enjoyable. As he headed to the North American hard courts, he was feeling good and hitting the ball cleanly but still it was not enough to get the better of an inspired Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarter-finals of the Toronto Masters 1000 (the Frenchman went on to win the title) or Federer in the quarter-finals of the Cincinnati Masters 1000. From missing his chances to control the first set, Murray went on to lose a two-break, 4-1 lead in the second set. And he was unimpressed.
“I had a couple break points in back‑to‑back games to get into it in the first set; didn’t get either of them,” he said after the Federer loss. “Then obviously was well up in the second and blew it.
“It’s fine to have periods like that when you’re young and first coming on the tour, but one or two games max should be really when you let your level drop a little bit, and then you need to be able to find it again; I didn’t do that.”
Still, if he finds himself playing Federer again, he will at least have reached the final in Flushing Meadows and that will be a step forward: Murray has not reached a final of any description since winning Wimbledon last summer. But there is an awful lot of hard work to do before he can contemplate another crack at the old champion.
The first round is staggered over three days at the Open, leaving those who start their campaign on Wednesday to play catch-up with the rest of the field for the first week.
Murray does not know when he will be called to work but all he does know is that when he gets there, Robin Haase will be waiting for him. The tall and awkward Dutchman had Murray on the ropes here three years ago on a hot and steamy afternoon in the second round. Two sets to the good, he almost had the beating of the Scot until Murray pulled his socks up and Haase wilted. He will not be a pushover this time around, either.
Radek Stepanek, who beat Murray at Queen’s Club a couple of months ago, ought to be waiting for the Scot in the second round with Fernando Verdasco, the world No 36 and the man who came closest to derailing Murray’s Wimbledon campaign last summer, possibly sitting in the third. After that it could be Tsonga and then Djokovic – and that for the chance to play Wawrinka, who beat Murray here in the quarter-finals last year, in the semi-finals.
Yet the big question mark hangs over Djokovic. Since he overcame his own doubts and fears to beat Federer in the Wimbledon final, his first major title in 18 months and his first victory after three grand slam final failures, the Serb has had plenty on his plate. He got married a matter of days after his SW19 win, he will become a father for the first time in October and as he freely admitted, beating Federer had been a huge mental and emotional battle. Since then, his form has been mediocre and his results poor as he struggles to find his focus and motivation again.
He certainly looked tense and tetchy as he practised with Murray yesterday, querying every other line call and shanking balls into the far reaches of the Flushing Meadows site. If he were to fall in the early rounds, it would promote John Isner to the position of favourite to come out of that little section of the draw and the big American has not made it past the third round since 2011.
Even so, the thought of Djokovic losing early is a very dim little light at the end of a very long tunnel for Murray. He needs to start winning matches again and he is running out of time in the search for that winning formula.