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Confident Murray ready for US Open
The Olympics are done and dusted with gold for Andy Murray. Now back to business — the business of winning a Grand Slam title. The Scot has done everything else worth doing on the men's tour but, after four appearances in Grand Slam finals, he is still without a title.
But this time, it could be different. Yes, the triumph over Roger Federer in the gold-medal match on Wimbledon's grass three weeks ago will have pushed his confidence to a new level, but that is not why Mats Wilander, a US Open winner in 1988 and still active on the ATP Champions Tour, believes this will be Murray's year at Flushing Meadows.
"My prediction is Murray winning, and I'm not saying that because he won the Olympics," Wilander insisted. "It's because I think he's a different man. I think Ivan Lendl (Murray's coach since January) has helped him enormously. He's becoming better physically all the time; he hits his forehand better, but the biggest difference is emotionally. He's more even-keeled, more positive."
That's a big evaluation from a shrewd observer, and it is backed up by another Grand Slam champion, Goran Ivanisevic, who won Wimbledon in 2001. "I don't think it's a matter of whether Rafa (Nadal) is there or not. I think Andy would beat him. I think he can do it now."
That Nadal has pulled out because of recurring trouble with his knee has given the top four seeding spots an odd look. Not since Nadal himself was unable to play Wimbledon in 2009 — 12 Grand Slams events ago — has the ruling quartet allowed an intruder in their midst. David Ferrer, the tough Spaniard who seems to be getting better, is a worthy replacement for his countryman, but reigning champion Novak Djokovic will be a touch happier to see Ferrer across the net if they both get to the semifinal than he would if it had been Nadal.
Despite what Wilander and Ivanisevic have to say, there will be many people who will back Djokovic to retain his crown on the heels of the disappointment he suffered in London, losing in the semifinal of the Championships and then again in the bronze-medal match at the Olympics to Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro. The Serb bounced back well to win the ATP Masters title in Toronto right after the Olympics but then lost to Federer in the final in Cincinnati. It's not the first time this year he has failed to produce his best on a big occasion.
"It was really hard to repeat my success of 2011," said Djokovic, referring to his phenomenal achievement of winning three of last season's four Grand Slams. "I've been trying not to compare the years. I had emotional losses in London, so to bounce back (in Toronto) has given me confidence for the US Open."
The draw has been relatively easy on the No. 2 seed, but he will be keeping a wary eye on del Potro, who is lurking in his quarter. The giant Argentine faces fellow countryman David Nalbandian in the first round — a meeting neither will relish.
Federer, apart from being so soundly and unexpectedly beaten by Murray at the Olympics, has looked imperious for most of the summer and will be primed to take a crack at winning his sixth US Open, having lost in the semifinals to Djokovic in the past two years. The Swiss opens against Donald Young, whose hopes of emulating last year's fourth-round appearance — his best ever in a Slam — would seem to have been destroyed by the draw. It was only last week that Young ended a 17-match first-round losing streak.
New York crowds will be out in force to cheer on the American players, but the chances of any of them reaching the final weekend appear slim.
Mardy Fish and Sam Querrey open against Asian opposition: Fish, who opted out of the Olympics, meets Go Soeda of Japan, and Querrey, who has hoisted his ranking back up to 28 from 102 at the start of the year, plays the dangerous Yen-Hsun Lu of Taiwan. They are both in Federer's part of the draw.
James Blake, who will love being back in New York, is sandwiched between Murray and the big outside bet, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, but starts against Slovakia's Lukas Lacko. Brian Baker, who burst back on to the tour so successfully in Europe in the spring after a five-year absence through injury, has found the US Open Series harder work but finally got a win under his belt in Cincinnati and should be able to handle Jan Hajek in the first round.
The same goes for America's best bet, John Isner, seeded No 9, who will be hoping to improve on his quarterfinal appearance last year, his best to date at the US Open. Isner has had a strange year, brilliant in Davis Cup, often mediocre on the ATP tour but still capable of slugging it out in marathon matches. The vastly experienced Belgian Xavier Malisse won't be intimidated by that big serve, but Isner should make it through to meet the consistent Janko Tipsarevic in the second week.
And Andy Roddick? He keeps on going — won't give up, refuses to be ridden into retirement. Andy's a warrior, as his two ATP titles at Eastbourne and Atlanta this year prove. And he will keep fighting until he can't get his serving arm above his head. He will meet a qualifier in the first round, but then the young Australian, Bernard Tomic, talented yet unpredictable, will probably be waiting for him his second time out.
Will the injection of the Olympics on grass into the summer season have a ripple effect on players' form and fitness in New York? Frankly, I doubt it, but there is no getting away from the fact Murray will be walking tall when he reappears in Arthur Ashe Stadium. That gold medal will have given him belief, and, by a whisker over Federer, I would make him favorite for the title.
But no one is suggesting it will be easy. Spanish left-hander Feliciano Lopez, who likes hard courts, will be his first seed, and then it just gets tougher. The big Canadian Milos Raonic, who is due for a breakthrough at the Grand Slam level, should be next with Tsonga to follow in the quarters.
Add Federer and then Djokovic. If Murray wins he will have earned it.