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Steve Flink: Murray overshadowed by trio at top

5/29/2012 3:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

In case you did not notice it, Andy Murray turned 25 two weeks ago. In the world of professional tennis, he is middle aged, not yet old but no longer young. The British No. 1 and world No. 4 still has time to make the most of his vast potential. He will have a good many chances in the next couple of years to finally get on the board at a Grand Slam event, to validate his status as a great player by securing one of the major titles. I remain optimistic that his day in the spotlight of his sport will come. Murray simply has too much talent not to take his place among the elite. He has such an abundance of gifts that he will surely realize at least some of his largest dreams. He is a man who knows what he wants and will eventually find a way of making good on his aspirations.

But this feisty individual has had a year of mixed fortunes since he joined forces with the highly intelligent Ivan Lendl at the start of the 2012 season. Murray nearly toppled defending champion Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the Australian Open, pouring his heart and soul into that contest before falling somewhat unluckily 7-5 in the fifth set to the unwavering Serbian. Just how close was that particular encounter? Murray rallied gamely from 2-5 down in the final set, reached 5-5, and had three break points in the eleventh game. On one of those critical points, Murray lost a bruising 30 stroke exchange. But, in the end, Djokovic had the greater inner belief when it counted.

And yet, Murray—who won one tournament this season and reached the final of two others—has been a remarkably consistent performer on the big occasions. After losing the final to Djokovic in Melbourne at the start of 2011, Murray has made it to the semifinals of the last four majors, losing thrice to Rafael Nadal and once to Djokovic. Furthermore, he has been to three major finals across his career, starting with the 2008 United States Open. So Murray understands the territory of the big occasions, and his consistency at those venues has been impressive. His run to the penultimate round of the French Open a year ago—the first time he had gone that far at Roland Garros—was a significant step forward for the British competitor on clay.

But the fact remains that Murray has not fared well this season on the dirt. His clay court campaign commenced in Monte Carlo, and he was upended there in the quarterfinals by a top of the line Tomas Berdych. In Barcelona, Murray was a quarterfinalist again, but was overwhelmed and overpowered by the imposing Milos Raonic, who served magnificently in that match. Murray went to Rome for the Italian Open after skipping Madrid with a back injury. He seemed less than comfortable during a three set loss to Richard Gasquet in the round of 16. Those results on the dirt were surely disappointing for Murray. He did win his share of clay court matches but was found wanting against the best of his opposition.

Today, Murray played his opening round match at Roland Garros, facing Tatsuma Ito of Japan. Ito has quietly advanced to his current station at No. 68 in the world, which is no mean feat. He is the kind of player no leading competitor can afford to take lightly. Murray realized that, and came into this encounter knowing full well that he must perform as well as possible on the red clay as a means of rebuilding his psyche and setting the stage possibly for some larger successes ahead at Wimbledon, the Olympic Games and the U.S. Open across the summer.

Murray asserted himself at the outset of his meeting with Ito, claiming the first set in virtually no time flat. Ito has enlarged his reputation essentially by displaying his best match playing qualities in the minor leagues of the sport. He won three Challenger events earlier this year, and that is why he stands among the top 70 in the world. Ito was thoroughly outclassed in the first set against Murray, but then created a significant opening in the second set. Murray was down 3-4, 0-40 in that chapter, but he fought his way out of that predicament, and salvaged the set with grit and deep concentration. Ito was discouraged by not climbing back to one set all; thereafter, Murray resumed his mastery of the match. He captured ten of the last eleven games in rolling to a 6-1, 7-5, 6-0 triumph.

From this juncture, Murray has some hard work ahead. The No. 4 seed could meet the offbeat and cagey No. 25 seed Bernard Tomic of Australia in what would be an intriguing third round appointment. If he makes it to the quarterfinals, he would almost certainly take on the industrious David Ferrer of Spain. Ferrer has never lost to Murray on clay, and on current form he would figure to beat the British player at Roland Garros. Even if Murray survived a long and debilitating struggle with Ferrer, he would then find himself up against the redoubtable Rafael Nadal, and he is not going to stop the six time champion in a best of five set confrontation on the Spaniard’s favorite surface. It simply isn’t going to happen.

The important thing for Murray is to try to make it to the second week of the world’s foremost clay court tournament, and then leave himself confident, enthused and ready for the rest of the summer on grass and hard courts. He is a better player on both of those surfaces than he is on the dirt. Let’s face it: it is inconceivable that anyone other than Nadal, Djokovic or Roger Federer will win Roland Garros this year. That estimable trio has controlled the game ceaselessly over the course of recent history.  Since Marat Safin secured the 2005 Australian Open crown, the dynamic trio has won 27 of the last 28 majors. Only Juan Martin Del Potro—the 2009 U.S. Open victor—has been able to take a Grand Slam event in that span.  Since Federer took his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 2003, the numbers are nearly as remarkable for the sport’s “Big Three”. In that stretch, Andy Roddick won the 2003 U.S. Open, Gaston Gaudio was victorious at the 2004 French Open, and then along came Safin in 2005 at Melbourne.

Think about it: going back to the summer of 2003, in nearly a decade of Grand Slam competition, only four players (Roddick, Gaudio, Safin, and Del Potro) other than Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have broken into the major title club among the men.  One day soon, by the end of 2013, Andy Murray is going to get there. But it won’t be this year in Paris.