New York: Andy Murray is working his way through this US Open with a certain degree of irritation and impatience, as if he cannot wait to get to the final to defend his title, but the scowls and grunts on another curious night could not disguise the fact that his game is steadily reaching a peak.
This urgency was apparent in the third round against Florian Mayer, when Murray played way better than his body language suggested to win comfortably in three sets and, with the wind again skirling around the Arthur Ashe Stadium, Denis Istomin was also left flapping like a wet duck in a hurricane after a good start against the enigmatic Scot.
But for losing focus in the tie-break, Murray might have had the match over in under two hours but he did well to ignore a subsequent mounting tally of poor line calls and the unwanted interference of the elements.
It took both of them a little while to judge the arc of their swings as they struggled to control the wobbling ball but, once he had made the adjustments, Murray imposed his will on the Uzbek to win 6-7 (5), 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 in three hours and seven minutes and advance to the quarter-finals for the third year in a row.
There he will meet Stanislas Wawrinka, who beat him in the third round here three years ago and who last night defeated the fifth seed Tomas Berdych, 3-6, 6-1, 7-6 (6), 6-2 in the Louis Armstrong Stadium. It was there that Roger Federer was bundled out of the tournament the previous evening; Stan is now the best Swiss player in this tournament. At the end of the year in London, he might be the best (or only) Swiss player in the ATP World Tour Finals.
On Ashe, meanwhile, Murray was dealt the familiar distractions: a backdrop of ambient hubbub from the coprorate boxes, the flutter of stray food wrappings, the odd plane flying in and out of nearby La Guardia and his opponent’s stubborn refusal to bend to his will.
“You don’t want to be playing your best tennis at the start of a tournament,” Murray said at the start of the championships. But, moving into the second week, he needs consistency. The level goes up now, the margin of error diminishes, and the approach of the big prize invests each contest with nerves of a different kind. To lose early is to be embarrassed; to lose late, is to be devastated.
There were several moments of exasperation. At 5-all in the first-set tie-break, a wee voice in the crowd squeaked something inaudible to all but Murray, and he stopped in mid-serve, going on to double-fault and lose the set.
In the second set, the racket slipped in his hand and the ball dribbled to his feet with the court at his mercy when he was leading 5-1. Yet he put his game head back on immediately and broke for the set after an hour and half of fractious, entertaining tennis.
In the first point of the second game of the third set, Murray hit a clean winner and was furious when it was called out. “This is getting ridiculous,” he said to the umpire. “It wasn’t even close to being out.” He was even more incensed when he was told to replay the point. “I’m replaying that point? You’re kidding.” When Murray hit a forehand wide to lose the point, he did well not to explode. As in the first-set tie-break interruption, this was another examination of his fortitude, and he came through it to hold.
He rushed through the set and it seemed Istomin might fold, but he survived a break of serve in the third to level in the second game and the pressure was transferred across the net. Murray was in control, but he was not dominant enough to play with the freedom he had done in the second. Never the less, he found patience, an invaluable weapon in a sport of a thousand moments, and began to work his mind games on Istomin.
Some athletes can deceive both the onlooker and their opponent with a mannered swagger. Muhammad Ali was one such, a champion of the ring who looked like he was winning, even when he was not. Murray, on the other hand, often appears to be in more trouble than he is, on the ropes and ready to be taken, before launching a haymaker to turn the course of the contest. He evinces concern, generates anxiety, and delivers pain.
It is why he is so hard to read in a tournament. He walked on to this court after two outstanding champions, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams, had embarrassed their opponents and had good experts declaring they were firm favourites to win the men’s and women’s titles. Murray’s match would be different and the late-night New York crowd loved it.
Closer examination of Murray’s tennis reveal something other than anxiety and deception, however. The quality of his shot-making, generally, was supreme. After a while, he ignored the eddying breeze and, in the first point of the eight game of the set, produced a running cross-court forehand winner from behind the baseline at the end of a long, side-to-side rally that brought everyone to their feet and a look of bewilderment to the drawn features of Istomin.
It was one of several glorious interludes. Istomin hit a fourth ace to hang on for 4-5, but it was only a respite.
At the start of the fourth, an absence of stewards meant fans returned to their seats in an annoying dribble that again interrupted the rhythm of the match. This really is a chaotic event, but none the poorer for that as a loud and entertaining spectacle. The crowd, in a way, reflect Murray’s some times disorganised psyche.
Istomin, kitted out now in new fluorescent lemon shirt, matching shoes and headband, but still wearing his wraparound glasses, did not play like the super-hero of his appearance. He looked entirely mortal, in fact, as Murray slayed him for the good of tennis if not Gotham. He might be ranked No 3 in the world, but he is No 1 for entertainment.
His final break was the quirkiest. He shanked a forehand impossibly high, it landed just inside the line and in the following shot-exchange, Istomin was forced deep and drilled the net with a forehand.
Serving for the match, Murray struck his fifth ace and fifth double fault, wrapping it up with a forehand volley, a clinical end to a slightly weird match. But he is through. And ready for the next challenge.
“Did Wawrinka win?” Murray asked at courtside immediately after the match. “It’s hard some times to keep an eye on the other game on the scoreboard. It will be a very tough match. He’s played great tennis all year. He has been eight and nine all year and probably going to go higher.”