Andy Murray has never been shy about asking for advice, and when he looks for guidance he usually goes to the top.
Amélie Mauresmo, his present coach, is a two-time Grand Slam winner; before that it was Ivan Lendl, he of the eight Grand Slam titles and the dogged determination to grind the opposition into the dust. Over the years, he has picked the brains of Andre Agassi and John McEnroe to find that little spark of extra inspiration. But on Friday, just two days before he began his US Open campaign, he plumped for Rory McIlroy.
Rewarding himself with a rare day off after a solid week of training, Murray went to watch the Northern Irishman play at The Barclays just up the road in New Jersey. Like Murray, McIlroy had his ups and downs before he made his big breakthrough and, like Murray, once that breakthrough had been made, life was not all plain sailing. But now, enjoying the best spell of his career – and one of the most successful summers the sport has seen – McIlroy is in his pomp. He was just the sort of competitor Murray wanted to spend time with as he tries to put his game in order before the Open begins.
“I guess obviously we are both in individual sports and there has been a lot of expectation on both of us over the last few years,” Murray said. “It is nice and can be helpful to talk to other athletes in different sports. I find it interesting and it can give you a different way of looking at things. I enjoyed spending time with him.
“You watch him live but then you speak to him and can see he is a totally normal guy, he’s not different to anyone else, just incredibly gifted at golf. He obviously works extremely hard at it as well. You see him playing with Bubba Watson and Jimmy Walker. He is hitting the ball 30 or 40 yards further than Jimmy Walker who is a fantastic golfer and that’s special because you can’t teach that. He’s a small guy and not incredibly strong but he has incredible technique and timing. It was great to watch.
“He’s a very nice guy. I have met him a couple of times before, at some of the tournaments. He is enjoying himself just now, he has played great the last few months, I’m happy for him.”
Relaxed and refreshed after his day away from the courts, Murray was looking content with his lot. Today he will begin his tilt at the title against Robin Haase, the Dutchman who almost beat him here three years ago. With Murray in his current form, Haase is just the sort of opponent who could cause the Scot problems. When Murray is playing well, he looks like a title contender, but it is finding the consistency to string performances like that together that seems to have escaped him this year.
The early part of the season was always going to be a struggle for the former champion as he came back from back surgery, but now that he is fully fit again and has trained hard and well, he just needs to start winning matches. That is not nearly as easy as it sounds, particularly not at the age of 27 which is the very depths of middle age in the tennis world.
As he tries to solve the problem, Murray is again looking to the best in the business for inspiration. Last year, Roger Federer traipsed around the circuit looking old, tired and past it. His back was hurting, his confidence was in shreds and he was losing to anyone and everyone. But while the pundits and the punters wrote him off, Federer regrouped and worked harder. Now, at the age of 33, he is coming to New York as one of the favourites for the title as he chases his 19th Grand Slam trophy. His resurgence is the perfect example for Murray as he works his way back to the top.
“It doesn’t surprise me because it has happened in the past with great players,” Murray said. “Agassi was one of them, or Connors making a great run here when he was 39. Everybody’s body works differently. Some guys, by the time they get to 30, their bodies are burnt out and some of them like Roger, with the way that he moves and the way that he plays, he doesn’t put as much stress and strain through his body.
“It has been impressive how he has responded since last year. I wasn’t among them but a lot of people were writing him off and saying he wouldn’t win another major, but he proved at Wimbledon that he can still do it. He was extremely close there and he has played great in the run-up to this as well.”
The next few days will show whether a little of the McIlroy magic has rubbed off on Murray – and if it has, Federer may find he has a rival as he chases that next major title.