New York: When Andy Murray hooked up with Ivan Lendl eight years ago, he seemed convinced that, after several experiments with other coaches, he and old Rock Jaw would be together for the rest of his career.
Within a year, he had broken through for an Olympic gold medal and his first Grand Slam title at the US Open. Two Wimbledon titles would follow — then injury, struggle and no little angst.
When Murray arrived in New York this week to prepare for the US Open, the last major of the season, he may have experienced a shiver of regret, or nostalgia maybe, when he learnt Lendl had come out of retirement to tend to the development of the exciting young German Alexander Zverev.
Murray would hardly be human if he did not at least wonder how it may have panned out during his own difficult stretches had Lendl not walked away — twice.
Lendl and Murray long ago put their emotional split to one side. The coach went off to play a lot of golf and the player found contentment with his old friend, Jamie Delgado, who has bolstered his long-time backup team. He has new challenges now. Murray is 31, still managing the drawn out recovery of his chronic hip pain and looking up the rankings rather than down, at 378 in the world, as 21-year-old Zverev consolidates his position near the top of the game at No 4.
Zverev has promised a lot — three Masters titles — without grabbing the biggest prize but he has the game to scare everyone in the field. It would be a disappointment if he did not reach the final weekend. For Murray, getting into the second week would be a considerable achievement.
Murray, who places below Dan Evans in the British rankings, is flying so far under the radar Roger Federer did not mention the three-times Grand Slam champion when discussing whom he regarded as the main contenders.
As Federer sees it in the first Grand Slam tournament featuring the big four since Wimbledon 2017, the defending champion and No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal, and the former champion Novak Djokovic, who beat the Swiss in the Cincinnati Open final, are the two to beat. He does not sound that confident about his own game, which soared and dipped during the warm-up tournament before his bankable return of serve collapsed against Djokovic in Cincinnati.
Nor does Djokovic, it seems, saying later of Federer: “Having not played Roger for over two years was really strange. He had it seems like a difficult time [moving] ... He didn’t play at his best but I still had to earn the victory.” After the barb, the soothing, compulsory balm of respect.
Murray returns to New York an almost invisible champion, which may be the way he prefers it. Since his return from injury this summer, he has struggled to assert himself. When he looked to have conquered his own misgivings about his fitness, he then faltered on the eve of Wimbledon, unconvinced he could survive a five-set match.
He still is not sure if he can — which is why he should have played there, although he is convinced he made the right decision. After winning a few matches on grass, Murray has had tough examinations in Washington — where he withdrew after winning three matches — and in Cincinnati, where Lucas Pouille was too good for him in the first round.
Djokovic, who limped away from Wimbledon with Murray in the quarter-finals in 2017, has been considerably rejuvenated since winning there on his return this summer, then in Cincinnati. When Nadal, perennially worried about his knees and hip, decided to skip Cincinnati to get ready for Flushing Meadows he sent out a signal of doubt; Djokovic will surely start favourite.