It’s anybody’s Open

Though the field is wide open, the fitness of the players and the trying conditions at Flushing Meadows could determine the outcome at the last Grand Slam event of the year. By Raakesh Natraj J.

The persona of Andy Murray, the one conceived by newsmen in Fleet Street that is, is a phantasmagoria of messianic images, one that has over the course of time come to establish a preponderance over the man himself and of his doings on court. This year has been, in many ways, Murray’s attempt to tune out the dissonance, to try on the vauntingly large boots of Andy ‘the deliverer’ Murray. When he has to shield his vision from the blinding glare of adulation, he is often confronted with dark numbers that almost taunt him of his lack of Grand Slam pedigree. Then the unsparing debates on his style. One moment he is the master tactician, the all-courter, the counter-puncher, and the next he is deemed to be slightly clueless, trying too many things for his own good.

Coming into the U.S. Open, Murray’s form in the slams has been consistent, if not compelling, having reached the fourth round or better in the three poster events so far. Murray also does not belong to that generation of players whose psyche was permanently marred by feelings of impotency, self doubt and thwarted ambition that playing against Roger Federer in his prime would have evoked. He is one of only two players — the other is Rafael Nadal — to have a non-dismaying win-loss record against Federer (6-3 in Murray’s favour compared to the soul-shattering 19-2 stranglehold that the Swiss has over Andy Roddick).

But play the number-game over any extended period of time and sooner rather than later, one is bound to run into an insurmountable set of statistics with the name Roger Federer appended to it. Federer who has held the U.S. Open aloft a record five consecutive times; Federer who stood between Murray and his first Grand Slam title last year at the Flushing Meadows.

At 22, one year’s worth of winning and losing would have imparted to Murray’s game a great degree of temperance and amended his disposition to be more accepting of the unappealing aspects of a slogged-out win. Murray is not the finished article yet, and the collective expectations of a nation, which squints hard with the notion that in the aspects of an Andrew Flintoff can be seen the shades of Richard the Lionheart, might yet burn him out. But winning on the hard-courts of the U.S. Open, a surface that best augments his game, Murray can give himself a chance. Not just to gratify the almost insatiable craving of his fans — a win here, in all probability, is only going to send it to fever-pitch. A chance to discover himself.

Beyond the media glow that attempts to limn through the outlines of Murray, a figure that would betake any form that a nation’s fancy can conceive — a respite from the grimy realities of an economic recession, a ticket out of tennis obscurity — and beyond the darker shadows of unrealised potential, of a career that shrivels under the stark summer of unceasing expectations, awaits the Scot the patient noesis of how good he really is. Or, how good he can be.

Nadal, sitting on the sidelines, has seen his French Open crown — on which rests his claim to invincibility — and his No. 1 ranking — that which he clawed out of Federer’s grasp over the course of two years — slip from him. Federer now claims both artefacts, but not with the iron fist and the air of permanency that appeared to be his birth right. And the distance that the pair had opened up between themselves and the rest of the field has been whittled down.

Andy Murray needs to do better then Federer at the U.S. Open to sit atop the rating summit. None of this though would bother Nadal as much as his quivery knees. Any injury that hinders mobility would be debilitating, but a game like Nadal’s which is founded on raw athleticism and positional play stands to lose a lot more. Just weeks into his comeback, questions have already been raised — if shorn of his strenuosity, would Nadal ever be as good any more? The immensity of his physical prowess, the sheer vitality of it, often conceals the inhuman will that powers and drives those sinews. His knees might be jittery, but the mind that commands it to do its bidding would be raring to go. Nadal would be competing as much against the humidity and the baking heat, the gruelling routine and the mending knee as against his opponents.

Federer, a year ago, was faced with a similar incertitude as Nadal. One title adrift of Pete Sampras’ record, the Swiss suddenly seemed unmoored. French Open and Wimbledon titles later, he’s answered most, but not all the questions. With every laboured win, questions over the potency of his game refuse to die down. The epic win over Roddick showed Federer was willing to wait, to bleed his opponent, when the scalpel with which he usually incised them didn’t work. The burden of destiny that Sampras’ record levied on his game came unshackled and the U.S. Open could be the stage where Federer could rediscover the unfettered and creative side of his game, one that currently only makes a cowed and strained appearance.

Andy Roddick has belied accusations trying to pin him down as a uni-dimensional player excessively reliant on his big serve. Serving and volleying on occasion, though not with the frequency or ease of the natural, and an improved backhand has added variety to Roddick’s game, something that would not only make him more effective but also difficult to break down tactically.

Juan Martin del Porto, the losing finalist at the Montreal Masters, withdrew from Cincinnati sighting fatigue, underlining the trying conditions and the end of season wear that could impair performances in the last Grand Slam event of the year.

Propping a favourite in the women’s section, if it can be hazarded in the first place, would probably involve rejecting the official rankings with a dismissive shove. Among the top 10 players on the WTA list, outside of the Williams sisters, only Svetlana Kuznetsova has had any Grand Slam success. The rankings shuffle like a set of plastic cards in the hands of a Las Vegan dealer. Venus and Serena would be the punters’ favourite, considering their propensity to make light of injuries, poor form, bad starts and tough draws to keep meeting in the finals of Grand Slams. Kuznetsova, with the French Open title under her belt coupled with her experience in the circuit and the strength of her play, would make the strongest case for the spot of the challenger.

Dinara Safina, the current No. 1 set up the road block on Kim Clijsters’ comeback trail in the quarterfinals at Cincinnati, but not before ‘Kim Kong’ had sent three top-20 players packing. If the former World No.1 can get the rust out of her system in time, she has the ability to harry her opponents with her deep strokes and steady retrieval. The ranking system might be skewed, but Safina in the last year has shown remarkable consistency in reaching finals and losing them. One can contend either way, half-empty or half-full, but her trophy cabinet remains incontrovertibly empty.