NEW YORK — Andy Murray chuckled as he explained the very best part about owning a pair of Grand Slam titles, one from the U.S. Open last year, the other from Wimbledon last month.
No more of those nagging, oft-repeated queries — the ones he heard over and over and over again.
“Not too much for me has changed. But the one thing that’s been nice is that, literally for five or six years, I did a press conference before every tournament and after every single match, and I got asked that question, I’d say, 90 percent of the time: Why have you never won Wimbledon? When are you going to win Wimbledon? Why have you not won a Grand Slam?” Murray said in an interview with The Associated Press.
“So that’s the thing that, for me, has been the nicest: Not having to answer that question,” he added, standing outside the locker rooms at Arthur Ashe Stadium, not far from the oversized color picture and silver plaque that commemorate his 2012 victory at Flushing Meadows. “I can just play tennis now and not have to worry about that anymore.”
That’s right. When the year’s last major tennis tournament begins on the U.S. Open’s blue hard courts Monday, Murray will have other concerns.
For example: What might it feel like to defend a Grand Slam championship? That’s something he’s never tried to do before, of course.
Or how many of these can he win?
Or, really, will he even be able to win one more?
Yes, for a guy who has accomplished so much over the past 13 months, redefining his career and place in the game, Murray still sounds very much like someone harboring quite a bit of uncertainty. His success at the U.S. Open in 2012 did, after all, make him the first British man since Fred Perry in 1936 to win a Grand Slam title. His success at Wimbledon in July, as everyone knows by now, made him the first British man since Perry 77 years ago to earn the singles trophy at the All England Club. Toss in a London Olympics gold medal, and it’s been quite a run.
“He’s turned into a great player. He’s always been a good hitter of the ball, been a great mover. I think mentally he’s a bit better now,” 14-time major champion Pete Sampras said recently. “Now he feels like he belongs.”
Maybe. But Murray also remembers what came before.
He remembers — and, much to his chagrin, there was a time when he frequently was reminded of it by others — that he lost each of the first four Grand Slam finals he reached.
“I know how long it took me to win one and how hard it is to win them. I know it’s possible I may not win another one,” the 26-year-old from Scotland said, his tone and facial expression earnest. “So I just want to keep trying to put myself in position to win Grand Slams and hopefully I can do the same again here.”
Indeed, Murray anticipates some shakiness at the start of the U.S. Open.
Instead of declaring that he will step on court with the bravado of a defending champion, Murray wonders whether his play might be affected in a bad way at the outset of this U.S. Open because of what happened a year ago.
“Depending on how the tournament goes, at the start of the tournament, I expect to be pretty nervous and feel maybe more pressure than I have in some years,” he said. “But then I would hope, if I can do well and get through the first few rounds, that it would actually give me confidence. Once I get myself into the tournament, I may calm down and actually start feeling more confident that I can win the event. Whereas before, it might have actually been the opposite. I might have felt OK at the start, and when I got closer to the end of the tournament, felt more pressure and more nerves and less confidence.”
The 2012 women’s champion, Serena Williams, owns 16 Grand Slam titles, four at the U.S. Open. Usually when she loses at a major tournament, the sting sticks around for a while.
That was the case with this year’s Wimbledon, where her 34-match winning streak surprisingly ended with a fourth-round exit.
“I was obviously bothered. I wanted to do better. I was disappointed. I’m still disappointed,” Williams said, 7½ weeks after that setback. “But I had opportunities and I didn’t take them in the match. I have to realize that I have to just be better and learn from the experience. It’s not the end of the world. I can always do better and keep growing.”
Asked what advice she might offer Murray about attempting to repeat as champion at a Grand Slam tournament, the No. 1-seeded Williams said: “For me, it’s not about defending. It’s about: `This is the U.S Open. I want to try to win this title.’ Last year was last year. Now it’s time to try to have fun this year. That’s how I look at it.”
Murray is seeded No. 3, and the expectation is that he or one of the men ahead of him, No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 2 Rafael Nadal, will hold the trophy after the final, which is scheduled for Sept. 9. It’s the first time since 1954 that the tournament is supposed to end on a Monday (the men’s final was played on a Monday each of the past five years, but that was because of rain delays).
That trio divvied up the season’s first three Grand Slam titles, with Djokovic winning his fourth at the Australian Open, and Nadal his eighth at the French Open. They also have split the past three U.S. Open titles (Nadal won in 2010, Djokovic in 2011). Another past U.S. Open champion, Roger Federer, is seeded only No. 7 this time, his lowest spot in New York since 2002.
Federer is coming off a second-round loss at Wimbledon, ending his record run of 36 consecutive major quarterfinal appearances. Another streak remains intact, though: The U.S. Open will be Federer’s 56th Grand Slam tournament in a row, tying the men’s record.
Federer turned 32 this month, and he’s dealt with a bothersome back and a brief experiment with a different racket, while losing matches to a couple of guys ranked outside the top 100.
Any chance he could add to his 17 Grand Slam trophies?
“At this stage,” said John McEnroe, a seven-time major champion and ESPN analyst, “it’s going to be quite, quite difficult for him to win another one.”
A photograph of Federer hangs in a hall near the Arthur Ashe Stadium locker rooms, staring right at Murray’s poster across the way. The big difference: Federer won the U.S. Open five times, every year from 2004-08.
“I came here for the first time when I was 15. You walk down these corridors, and you look at all the great players who have played here,” Murray said. “To be up on the wall next to them is a nice feeling.”
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