Going into the fourth round of the US Open, Andy Murray and Roger Federer still look likely semi-final opponents, but their journeys have been vastly different and the Swiss, who has not dropped a set, would start a slight favourite.
They each have two matches to win to get there, of course, starting with two of the biggest servers in the game on Monday, Kevin Anderson against Murray, and John Isner against Federer. Neither of those will be easy.
But Federer has been in fine form for two months, every bit as convincing as when he was in his pomp, and he has carried his Wimbledon form through the lead-up tournament in Cincinnati – where he beat Murray and Novak Djokovic – into the US Open, the tournament he won five times in a row and might yet win again.
It has taken Murray longer to settle into a convincing rhythm in the first week in New York. Although the cold virus that swept the locker-room sapped his energy in that tense five-setter against Adrian Mannarino, he looked in better shape taking care of Thomaz Bellucci in three on Saturday night, shortly after Federer had beaten Philipp Kohlschreiber.
Murray said after the Bellucci match he felt good again physically and his health should not be an issue in the second week. But he admitted the distraction of Great Britain’s Davis Cup semi-final in Glasgow a week after this tournament might be a factor in how he copes with the challenge.
Asked if being in the middle of three important weeks added to the stress of the assignment, he was candid in conceding it might. “Obviously if I was to lose in the next round I’d have more time to prepare for the Davis Cup, which is a big priority between now and the end of the year,” he said. “But ideally I would be going into the Davis Cup having played on the [last] Sunday here.
“I don’t feel more stressed by it, but I have had thoughts about it. Obviously I’ve played a lot of tennis and I’m thinking about maybe by the time I get to the Davis Cup I could be flat or even here towards the end of the tournament. I hope that’s not the case because I did plan it with my team about my training and stuff so that that wouldn’t be the case. But you always have thoughts like that about big events, especially with Davis Cup.”
He pointed out he had to adjust his schedule coming to New York, although not that radically. “I’d planned on playing Washington and Montreal, then not playing Cincinnati. Then I lost early in Washington. The week before the tournament here was very important because I’m not going to get much time off between now and the end of Davis Cup. I’d played a lot in Cincinnati and Montreal, some pretty rough finishes, late nights and coming back the next day. It was tough.
“So the week before I had to change a little bit what I would normally do. I didn’t do too much physical training, which normally the first few days when I get to New York I do quite a lot of. I spent very little time in the gym and spent less time on the court as well.”
This obsession with the detail of his working life is the end product of his commitment eight years ago to leave nothing to chance. That was when he started doing his winter training block in Miami (which is scrubbed from the schedule this year so he can spend December and Christmas at home with his wife, Kim, who is expecting their first child in February, shortly after the Australian Open).
For those not inside his training bubble, he has looked impressive. Although he dropped three sets in his first two matches – one against Nick Kyrgios, two against Mannarino – he was calm in regrouping, finishing 6-1 each time. Against Bellucci, he traded breaks at the start but was rarely in trouble from there to the finish and some of his ground strokes were stunning, Murray at the peak of his power and inventiveness.
“The match I played with Mannarino, the first two sets were extremely tough, the third set was quick, the beginning of the fourth was very hard and then after that it wasn’t. In the fifth set we barely played any [long] points.
“The conditions were brutal, both of us were extremely tired and the level of tennis wasn’t great. The match was, like, three hours, 15 minutes and a couple of the sets were not that challenging. Novak [Djokovic] managed to recover from a five-hour match [his semi-final against Murray in Melbourne three years ago] and play six hours a couple of days later [beating Rafael Nadal in the final] so I can recover, I think, from three hours.”
That was a pointed observation about the world No1, and while Murray admires and respects Djokovic, clearly their relationship has cooled in recent years. For now, his focus is getting past Anderson, whom he beat handily in the final at Queen’s, but who has been playing some solid tennis lately.
It is no surprise that he heads the tournament aces board with 69, seven ahead of Isner. But, as Murray pointed out, the court on Arthur Ashe has been playing slower since the erection of the roof. Getting the gig there on Monday could be a telling advantage for either Murray or Federer.
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