Murray heads home early from a Slam once again

The shocks at this U.S. Open no longer belong exclusively to the women. Andy Murray, the No. 2 seed and some expert’s tip for the title, played one of the worst matches of his career to lose 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 to Marin Cilic of Croatia on Tuesday.

First of all, one must credit the 20-year-old Cilic — another of the giants invading the tour who stands 6-foot-6 and makes sure that anyone receiving his serve is aware of it. With a crack of the wrist he gets incredible bounce on both first and second deliveries and Murray, whom Taylor Dent had described as the No. 1 returner in the world after losing to the Scot in the previous round, couldn’t handle it.

What is impossible to judge with complete accuracy is the extent of the injury to Murray’s left wrist. He had a scan the previous day which reportedly showed some kind of lesion. It was obvious that he was not able to hit his two-handed backhand with anything like his customary accuracy and venom and, deprived of that major weapon, he sank into a morose state, looking bereft of ideas or hope.

While admitting to the wrist problem, Murray did not try to offer it as an excuse for his defeat.

“I had a problem for a week or so,” said Murray who, apparently, was getting treatment for it as long ago as Montreal, a tournament he ended up winning. “But, regardless, you know, I just struggled today. I played poorly. I’m obviously very disappointed. I had my chance in the first set and after that I guess the momentum went with him. Normally the return is one part of my game where, even if the rest of my game is struggling, I find ways to break serve and get into points and I didn’t do that.”

Returning some of Dent’s 146 mph serves, as he did with great success two days before, can hardly have helped a tender wrist and it became obvious there was a problem in the second and third sets when he spent much of the time slicing one-handed backhands over the net.

The former Australian player Wally Masur thought Cilic played well but added, “Murray gave him time to play well. He was putting no pressure on his opponent. He’s a wonderful player, but if he is going to win Slams he has got to become more aggressive and go for more winning shots.”

Bob Brett, Cilic’s coach, was wearing the expression of a satisfied man after the match. “Let’s just say that Marin did what was required of him,” Brett said.

That was indisputable. When faced with two set points against at the end of the first set, Cilic came up with an ace on the first and then, at the end of a long rally that Murray seemed to be controlling, he whacked a huge backhand and Murray netted. After that the Cilic serve — aided and abetted by a forehand that is becoming one of the game’s biggest weapons — ruled the day.

“I’ve learned a lot from what’s happened this week, like I have most times when I’ve had bad results,” Murray said. “I’ll come back better and stronger.”

Nadal soldiers on

In the meantime Murray has relinquished his world No. 2 ranking to Rafael Nadal, who played a storming match under the lights on Ashe against Gael Monfils to win 6-7, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3. Nadal’s injury problems can’t be too serious otherwise he would never have survived this kind of physical encounter. Some of the rallies these two great athletes produced defied belief. Several lasted 27, 28 or even 30 strokes with the ball exploding off their rackets at speeds that defied the eye.

Such was the Frenchman’s whiplash intensity at the start that Nadal found himself a fraction off the pace and he began splaying his forehand all over the place. Monfils, a character on court if ever there was one, dominated the tiebreak and stirred up the crowd to fever pitch with his arm-swinging encouragement and wonderful range of facial expressions.

But on the changeover at the end of that first set, Nadal gave him the old soldier’s look which said, “This ain’t over yet, pal.” Inevitably Monfils began feeling it physically and was gasping for breath as more amazing rallies rolled through the second set. He made one last brave stand in the fourth, fighting back from 1-3 to level at 3-3 but Nadal was not about to be driven back any further and came storming back on the attack to wrap up a seriously impressive victory. He took the fight to Monfils and won. Murray probably wasn’t watching, but he should get the tape.

The other Frenchman in action, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga also came up short, succumbing to the more consistent firepower of Chile’s Fernando Gonzalez over on Louis Armstrong in another entertaining slugfest by a score of 3-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-4. Gonzalez, who was a quarterfinalist here back in 2002, will now play Nadal while Cilic will find himself facing someone of his own size, Juan Martin del Potro. The Argentine continued to look menacingly dangerous from the backcourt as he routed Spain’s Juan Carlos Ferrero 6-3, 6-3, 6-3.

Clijsters-Serena showdown set

Given her performances in the previous rounds, it came as little surprise that Kim Clijsters moved into the semifinals with relative ease against Li Na of China. The Belgian carried too much firepower for her worthy opponent, but that did nothing to diminish the enormity of Clijsters’ achievement in getting this far in her first Grand Slam back on the tour after so long away.

Her game has returned to its original state with surprising speed, but it is her happy disposition as much as anything which has allowed Clijsters to slip so easily into the rhythms of the tour again, despite her new responsibilities as wife and mother.

“I have a really good feeling the way I stayed focused after the Venus match,” she said afterwards. “Like I didn’t lose focus just by everything that was going on around me and all the attention. I think that’s something I’ve learned from the past, that experience I have when you beat big players not to get carried away and just refocus on a match like today.”

She will have to play at least as well next time out when a rampant Serena Williams will be breathing fire on the other side of the net. Williams roared past Flavia Pennetta, probably the most improved woman on the tour over the past two months, 6-4, 6-3. Williams likes and admires Clijsters — most people do — and was amused to hear that Kim had been speaking about the intense expression on Serena’s face when they have played in the past. Serena was asked if she was aware how she looked in the heat of battle.

“No, I’m not aware of it but I see it after in photos,” she replied. “I’m pretty horrified sometimes. I think, ‘Oh my God, who is that?'”

But she admitted she wouldn’t want it any other way.

“I’m really excited to have that fire. I think it’s cool that I have a chance to get involved and to be able to lift my game when I need it in a really intense moment. Hopefully I’ll be able to do that (against Clijsters).”

Serena also talked about Melanie Oudin. “I think she’s doing great,” she said. “She can even win her next match seeing all the players she’s beaten. It’s been my joy watching her play. It’s been exciting, especially for American tennis.”