There was a breathtaking ferocity about the way Andy Murray throttled Roger Federer to win Olympic gold earlier this month. Undaunted by Federer’s mastery at the All England club, Murray rolled to a straight-sets victory as if gold at the 2012 London Games were his destiny.
At that moment, a burden was lifted, with the gifted Scot finally proving he could win one of the sport’s coveted titles after falling short so many times.
But when the U.S. Open gets underway Monday in New York, Murray, 25, likely will find his burden heavier than ever, his Olympic triumph only drawing attention to what’s lacking on his résumé.
Murray is 0-4 in the finals of Grand Slam events.
He arrives in New York as the tournament’s No. 3 seed. And he ought to carry renewed confidence into the season’s final major, given his straight-sets Olympic victory over Federer just four weeks after he had lost the Wimbledon final to the Swiss.
But Murray faces a difficult path to the 2012 U.S. Open championship, placed in Federer’s half of the draw. That means he’ll likely have to defeat the world’s No. 1 and 2 players, Federer and Novak Djokovic, in back-to-back, best-of-five-sets matches to claim his first Grand Slam title.
He managed just that at the Olympics, relegating Federer to the silver medal and Djokovic to the bronze-medal match, which he lost to Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro.
“Obviously winning the Olympics was the biggest win of my career, that’s for sure,” Murray told reporters on the eve of the U.S. Open. But he hardly had a chance to celebrate the victory, much less figure out whether and where to display or store his gold medal, before launching in to his hard-court preparations the next day.
As Hall of Famer John McEnroe sizes up the U.S. Open’s men’s field, which will be without 2010 champion Rafael Nadal, who is sidelined by tendinitis, he could make a case for any one of the top three seeds as the favorite.
“I think it’s very close. You can make an argument for any one of them,” said McEnroe, who’ll provide commentary for ESPN.
Moreover, if one of the top three seeds wins, it would go a long way toward installing him as No. 1 for the year. No player has won more than one major this year. Djokovic claimed the Australian Open; Nadal, the French. Federer won Wimbledon. And Murray claimed the Olympic crown— not deemed a full-fledged major but an increasingly prestigious prize.
Federer, 31, is in the midst of a stunning resurgence, his oddly error-prone Olympic final aside. He reclaimed the No. 1 ranking upon claiming his seventh Wimbledon title in July. And he looked fit and in full command in his hard-court tune-ups heading into the U.S. Open.
“It’s going to take something special from my opponent to win,” said Federer, who boasts a record 17 major titles. “That’s kind of how it feels right now. Then again, I might walk away from Monday and [have] lost the first round.”
Federer hasn’t won the U.S. Open since 2008. The last two years he exited with particularly painful semifinal defeats, having led two-sets-to-none.
Federer even had match point in last year’s semifinal against Djokovic, but the Serb battled back by gambling huge on a high-risk forehand winner that Federer likely still sees in his sleep.
“It was just not meant to be, I guess, somehow,” Federer said.
Murray played nearly as boldly against Federer at the Olympics, dictating the tempo and forcing Federer into uncharacteristically poor decision-making.
And that’s what he’ll have to do to win the U.S. Open, in the view of coaching veteran Brad Gilbert, an analyst with ESPN.
“The way he was playing at the Olympics, if he can sustain that level for 21 sets (seven straight-sets victories), I have no doubt he can win a major,” Gilbert said. “He did it by winning it; by going through guys. Not waiting for guys to make mistakes.”
That’s how Serena Williams approached Wimbledon and the Olympics as well, serving brilliantly on the grass and attacking her opponents at every opportunity. And she came away with the singles and doubles crowns, shared with sister Venus, at each event.
Her 6-0, 6-1 demolition of Maria Sharapova in the Olympic gold-medal match was an overwhelming display of dominance. With it, Williams completed a Golden Slam, becoming only the second woman and fourth player in history to win all four majors and Olympic singles gold.
“Serena has proved more times than not than when she’s motivated and healthy and playing well, she’s the player to beat,” said Chris Evert, now part of ESPN’s broadcast team.
No active player in women’s tennis comes close to Williams’s 14 major titles. But like Federer, she hasn’t won the U.S. Open since 2008.
This year’s tournament will be the last for Belgium’s Kim Clijsters, 29, who will retire for a second and final time upon its conclusion. Clijsters stunned many in the sport by winning her second U.S. Open within months returning from a near two-year layoff following the birth of her daughter.
Asked to rate the players she had competed against during his career, Clijsters proclaimed Serena Williams as the best ever.
“She’s fast, she’s strong, she has a very good eye, as well,” Clijsters said. “What we have seen over the last few months is the best player ever.”
Informed of Clijsters’s assessment, Williams demurred.
“I can’t sit here and say I’m the best ever; I’m not. I’m not worthy of that title,” Williams said. “I’m just Serena. I love playing tennis, and I’m good at it. Just because I’m good at it doesn’t make me the best.”
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