Andy Murray will drag us to the edge as he defends his US Open crown
Briton defends a grand slam title for the first time and whichever way it goes he will put himself and his fans through an emotional roller-coaster
For as long as he plays, Andy Murray will bring uncertainty and struggle to his tennis, a fact confirmed in the seeming absurdity that betting sentiment has not lifted the defending champion to favouritism in this US Open.
This doubt, paradoxically, serves him well. It simultaneously eases expectations – ever so slightly, it has to be said – and it encourages the doggedness in his nature. Murray is at his best when he has something to prove, to himself, his peers and the wider tennis community and, even though he has beaten the tournament favourite, Novak Djokovic, in two of their past three grand slam finals, being regarded still as the outsider suits his nature.
Murray takes nothing for granted in any match he plays, be it against Michaël Llodra, his opponent in the first round here – and who has taken just one set off him in three matches, that in the first round here five years ago – Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer.
This is the sainted quartet, now and for the short-term future. Most odds-makers have put their faith in the seedings, which go with the world rankings, so Djokovic is seen as the toughest to beat, followed by Nadal, who is on the most blessed of runs, then Murray. Federer? He has fallen with no little suddenness or sadness to No7 in the world and would have to beat Nadal to reach the semi-finals, so those dreaming of a Swiss renaissance should keep their money safe. If Federer does not win here – and he shares 10-1 faith with Juan Martín del Potro – his season will be dramatically re-shaped in the lead-up to the ATP World Tour Finals at the O2 Arena in Greenwich in November.
None of this speculation bothers Murray. When Charlie Rose, of CBS, asked him this week if he thought he could win here again, he flat-batted: "Uh … I hope so, but it's gonna be difficult."
For Murray, tennis is a trial, a job as much as a sport, and those watching empathise with his struggle, as if locked in a life-long contract of furrowed brows and muttering against the gods. There is considerably less angst now than there was before Ivan Lendl arrived to form one of sport's most successful and unusual partnerships, a meeting of taciturn spirits.
"It's been a bit busier," Murray conceded when we spoke in New York this week, "everything that goes with entering a tournament like this as defending champion. More people recognise you, you have to do things like the draw. I guess that is just what you expect.
"You need to make sure you are very well organised this week. Getting in and out of the city is obviously pretty busy so you need to make sure that the time you have during the day you are using properly and not using up too much energy. There is even less going around the city or out in the evenings. It is just getting your stuff done and all the extra bits and pieces you need to do."
This rush to problem-solving is also classic Murray. It is as every moment is a challenge, not just those on court, because success brings the obvious, unwanted dividend of increased celebrity. He has enjoyed his grand time, of course, yet he remains detached from some of the craziness that accompanied his most golden day, that sunny, anxious three-set blitz of Djokovic at Wimbledon.
He was inserted in an edition of the Beano, his face is on a stamp, a Scottish aquarium named three Humboldt penguins after his mother Judy, girlfriend Kim and grandmother Shirley, and, for as long as they remained fresh, a 9ft by 16ft mosaic of him in strawberries adorned a Wimbledon supermarket in his honour. Murray has also been immortalised in song and dance, from The Pride of Dunblane, a Scottish country reel, to Wee Andy Murray, "a punchy number" produced in a recording studio in Elgin within hours of his victory.
All of which passes him by. He means no disrespect when he admitted: "To be honest I haven't seen many of them, but I haven't been reading the press much the last few months."
That is his life now: compartmentalised, full of schedules, contracts to consider, questions to answer or gently sidestep … and tennis to play. It is the core of his existence, still. People worry about him some times, concerned that he might relay the palpable angst on his face to his racket. Yet he rarely does.
"I probably feel more confident," he said with classic understatement, "but I think that when the tournament rolls around I will be very nervous. I would expect to be because it is a new experience for me.
"I have never come into a slam as defending champion so it's different and when you haven't experienced something before, it makes you feel a bit uneasy or uncertain so I expect to feel that way and see how I deal with it."
That is undiluted Murray: a perennial favourite, whatever the odds, for all those who are prepared to be dragged to the edge of their emotions. I suspect he will do so again this year.http://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2013/aug/24/andy-murray-us-open-champion