For all that Andy Murray has achieved in the past four months, he is back in New York facing the same old problem: Novak Djokovic.
While the Scot has been gathering titles and momentum – a second Olympic gold medal, a second Wimbledon trophy and a first ever appearance in the French Open final – the world No 1 has been struggling. Once he had won at Roland Garros and completed his career Grand Slam and now held all four major titles, the wheels started to come off the Serbian winning machine.
First it was “personal issues” that distracted him during Wimbledon and contributed to his third round loss. Then it was a wrist injury in Rio that led to his first-round defeat against Juan Martin del Potro.
That injury forced him to pull out of the Cincinnati Masters and no-one is quite sure just what physical and mental state Djokovic is in at the moment. But no-one is expecting him to be anything other than ruthless once the US Open begins today.
That has been Murray’s problem throughout his career. No matter how well he was playing, there was always someone else ahead of him, playing that bit better. At the start of his career, it was Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Now it is Djokovic on his relentless search for trophies and a place in the record books.
Murray, though, has taken the challenge and used it to his advantage. He has worked himself to standstill to become the best athlete he can be and he has picked the brains of every expert he can find to become mentally tougher, tactically wiser and technically better. And still he looks for more ways to improve.
Now reunited with Ivan Lendl, Murray is playing the best tennis of his career. At the age of 29, he is still reinventing himself as a player, as his clay court run proved – of all the grand slam tournaments, the French Open was always going to be hardest for him. And yet, after a slow start, Murray played better than anyone could have imagined to reach the final and then give Djokovic a fright when he got there. That was the launching pad for his golden summer – and the last time Murray won Olympic gold, he backed it up with his first US Open title.
His confidence is up and the momentum is with him, but will it be enough to win a second trophy in New York?
According to John and Patrick McEnroe, who will watch every ball struck from the ESPN commentary box, the jury is still out. That said, the Murray they are watching this year is a very different player to the man they have seen in 11 previous grand slam finals – winning three of them – and as he attempts to become the fourth man in the open era to reach all four major finals in a season, they know that Murray has reached a new level of consistency.
The Scot has now positioned himself to make a charge for the No 1 ranking but, even so, neither McEnroe brother can be sure that Murray could go on to control the tour in the way that his nearest rivals have done. That man Djokovic dominates the horizon.
“Novak is the most obvious obstacle,” John McEnroe said. “He’s been playing at a level the last couple years that Murray hasn’t been able to attain. That’s frustrated him. Things have changed the last couple months. The shock that Novak lost early at Wimbledon. But to me the level that Novak reached, it was higher consistently. The bar was higher maybe than anything I’ve ever seen as far as his consistency. There’s a way to go where Andy would be able to lift it to do what Novak has done the last couple of years and is going to continue to try to do.”
Patrick McEnroe, too, has been impressed with Murray’s recent achievements but they still have not convinced him that Murray is ready to step in the shoes of Djokovic, Federer or Nadal.
“Murray has an opportunity,” he said, “but he’s never going to get to the level, in my opinion, of those other players, which is not meaning he’s not a great player. He is a great player. He’s got three majors, two Olympic gold medals. He’s got the opportunity to win a couple more majors.
“I don’t think he has the type of game that can dominate week in, week out for a long period of time the way that those other three guys were able to do. He just doesn’t hit the ball as clean, as early.
“What’s amazed me about him is, to me, it takes him even more effort than those other players to be that good because his ball striking is not quite as pure as those other players.
“I look at what he did on clay this year as amazing. He was an OK clay court player. Then this year he really turned it to another level and became one of the best clay court players in the world this year. That really helped him do what he’s been able to do the last couple of months, both at Wimbledon and the Olympics. That gave him a lot more confidence.
“Also, because of that, because of how well he played on clay, now he’s got a chance to take over No 1.”
Coming into New York, Murray is a little tired after a packed summer schedule, but then again so is everyone else. Djokovic may or may not be hampered by his wrist issues and Nadal is still on his way back from a serious wrist problem. Federer will not play again this year due to a knee injury. The path to the title, then, looks a little clearer for Murray.
“You look at Novak,” John McEnroe said. “I saw something from his press conference today where he said physically he was okay at Wimbledon, but something was going on personally. You can see how that can change the momentum of the whole year in a way.
“All of a sudden it looked like he was on his way potentially to the Grand Slam, had won four in a row. Now we’re here at the Open and we’re talking as if Murray is playing the best tennis of everyone. The moment Novak lost at Wimbledon, it sort of lifted Andy and things have shifted a little bit. It just shows you how little it takes.
“Andy’s playing the best tennis of his life. He seems to have everything in order. He’s in a good space. He wants to get closer to be talked about in the same breath as these three guys that are like three of the five greatest players that ever lived. So Murray has been meticulous. He’s done a great job.”
Just how great a job we will see tomorrow when he begins his campaign against Lukas Rosol.