Andy Murray could hardly be in a better place at this US Open: one win away from a semi-final against Roger Federer, relaxed about his body and mind and in the form of his life.
As an hors d'oeuvre Wednesday he plays the Croat Marin Cilic, whom he has beaten six times in seven matches, the defeat arriving here in the fourth round three years ago – painfully. That Murray did not always handle defeat well and he said after losing 7-5, 6-2, 6-2: "I don't know how long or how quickly it will take me to get over it. Today was not good."
This, though, is a different Murray. This is the Murray who gave Cilic, a fine player, a tennis lesson at Wimbledon this year and who, on Monday night, so comprehensively dominated Milos Raonic that the rising Canadian dangerman was moved to tell him after two hours of hell that his tennis was "simply amazing". Coming from someone for whom self-belief has never been a problem, that was high praise.
Murray appreciated the compliment but was not going to get carried away; while his demeanour is more even now, he retains some of his old wariness. It is the way professional athletes function. The Scot did reveal, however, that he had found peace in New York, not just in the confines of the competition but away from the tour's loudest tournament in one of the world's loudest cities.
"When I got here I took three days off and spent some time on my own," he said. "I hadn't had any time on my own since the Olympics and I felt I needed to be away from the guys because it can get a bit sterile sometimes. I just watched some football on television and got breakfast, lunch and dinner from a health food shop [near his Manhattan hotel]."
Did teetotal Murray stray into a bar, perhaps? "I didn't have a pint of Guinness or anything like that," he laughed, "but I did have a massage in the hotel spa. I got a massage from a big lady with large hands, so it was nice to relax and be on my own. When I'm at home I'm always with Kim [Sears, his partner] or friends, so this was the first time in a while I had a couple of days by myself, walking around doing my own thing. It was nice."
There was more spare time on Tuesday as players waited for the rain to ease, so they could either practise or carry their efforts forward in the tournament.
As the rain fell, one of the host broadcasters replayed Murray's fourth-round humiliation of Raonic and a second viewing confirmed what had passed before in a two-hour flash the previous evening: the Scot surely cannot play much better than this. He won 6-4, 6-4, 6-2.
This was not just near flawless shot selection and execution. Nor was it merely rigid adherence to a carefully calculated strategy. It was not even the score or the statistics, although they did not lie. It was Murray hitting a level of excellence that was irresistible, even by a 21-year-old, 6ft 6in prodigy regarded by most good judges as the player most likely to break the hegemony of the game's contemporary greats.
Perhaps most impressive was Murray's disappointment when he failed to cover Raonic's inside-out forehand in an early rally and was left stranded and fuming. He did not make that mistake again and, in retaliation, he pinned the Canadian deep on his backhand, tempting him to run round the shot because he knew exactly where it would go.
This was string-pulling of the highest order, a blueprint drawn up by Murray and his coach, Ivan Lendl, and, as Raonic conceded, there was nothing he could do about it.
It is unusual to hear Murray say, "I have improved a lot." He has, of course, considerably – but, as recently as a year ago, he would have been reluctant to say so.
This is the Lendl factor. This is where the Czech's influence begins to turn a talent into a force, stripping Murray of diffidence and gloom, feeding his spirit and confidence and reminding him that he is as good as any of his peers.
Chief among those rivals at the moment is Federer, who has moved through the tournament like a quiet shark and has Tomas Berdych in the quarter-finals, a much tougher proposition.
Is Murray as good as Federer? Historically that is naive. The world No1 has won 17 grand slam titles, the latest of which he acquired with a devastating return to his sublime peak against Murray at Wimbledon this year. Murray owns none.
Yet a month later, still in the five-set format on the same grass, Murray was his master in the Olympic final and almost equally dominant. A rematch could be the match of the tournament.
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