NEW YORK – Andy Murray pulled off one of the most impressive performances in recent tennis history at the U.S. Open on Thursday.
It didn’t come during his quarterfinal match, a 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 defeat to Stan Wawrinka that, as the score suggests, was increasingly frustrating for the no-longer-defending champion.
It came immediately after it. Murray managed to pack up his bag, salute the crowd, walk off the Arthur Ashe Stadium court and find his way into the press room, all before Wawrinka finished his on-court interview. He even put on a gray jacket in between.
That gusto was missing the previous two hours from Murray, thoroughly outplayed by the surging Swiss No. 2. Murray, one of the best returners in the game, didn’t see a break chance on Wawrinka's serve once but did convert on his own racket, disfiguring it after losing the first set.
It was the Murray rage that defined his early career, before his 2012 U.S. Open title. He yelled at nobody in particular, covered his head in a towel on changeovers and ran the gamut of facial expressions.
A white-bearded Sean Connery in a buttoned-up orange shirt and glasses sitting a few rows up watched the meltdown. Alas, there was nothing 007 could do.
“I have had a good run the last couple of years,” said a desolate Murray, who leaned back in a chair and faced the press less than five minutes after the match ended. “It's a shame I had to play a bad match today.”
The first Grand Slam title defense of Murray’s career didn’t go as planned from the start. He was forced to wait until the third night of play for his first-round match, an oddity he made sure to note on Twitter.
In his last two matches, he didn’t look like the same dominant player who made the leap last year, winning Olympic gold at Wimbledon and then his long-awaited first Slam here in New York.
This year, Murray shooed any remaining doubts by becoming the first British man to win Wimbledon since 1936. His final victory was the most watched TV event in Britain this year, beating “Britain’s Got Talent.” His maturation seemed complete.
Murray took a month off before flying to the U.S. for a pair of Masters hard-court events to prep for his U.S. Open defense. He was bounced in straight sets before the semifinals of both.
“When you work hard for something for a lot of years, it's going to take a bit of time to really fire yourself up and get yourself training, 110 percent,” he said.
The last 12 months, not just the last two, have taken their toll.
“It's been challenging both ways (mentally and physically) for different reasons,” Murray said. “I mean, physically I played some extremely tough matches in that period. Mentally, as well, it was very challenging for me to play ‑‑ you know, Wimbledon, the last few games of Wimbledon to you guys may not seem like much, but to me it was extremely challenging.”
This loss isn’t nearly as impactful as Federer’s fourth-round exit. Murray will go into the next season refreshed and ready to battle Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal for more majors and the No. 1 ranking.
No, this result was bigger for the winner.
Don’t take anything away from 10th-ranked Wawrinka, who moved closer to potentially passing the declining Roger Federer as Switzerland’s top player. He registered 45 winners to Murray’s 15. His one-handed backhanded was a stroke of genius opposite Murray’s error-prone everything.
Wawrinka was snail-lake compared to Murray in meeting the press, which he had not done at the time this column was filed.
No doubt he’s excited to make his first Grand Slam semifinal.
“.....,” Wawrinka said on Twitter. “Alleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeezzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!!!!!!!!!!!! @usopen”
Wawrinka takes the “Iron Stan” moniker into the final four. The nickname was born from a comic book spoof he tweeted out after Federer lost in the fourth round.
“In New York, Roger the Swiss superhero must flee,” it read. “Luckily a new super hero is here to replace him … IRON STAN.”
Wawrinka is now more than just Federer’s compatriot thanks to a breakthrough year. His biggest headlines before this season came from a Davis Cup disagreement with the 17-time Grand Slam champion, but they are friends.
Wawrinka will face No. 1 Djokovic or Mikhail Youzhny in the semifinals Saturday. If it’s the former, it would be a rematch of the most thrilling Grand Slam match of 2013.
It was at the Australian Open in January where Wawrinka first proved he came to play this year. He nearly took down Djokovic in the quarterfinals, falling 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 12-10 in just over five hours.
He went on to make the French Open quarterfinals, rallying from two sets down in the fourth round, and made four ATP Tour finals this year. That’s more than his previous four seasons combined.
Wawrinka’s play this year made Thursday’s upset of the medium variety. Not mild, but not hot. He’s not quite in the top echelon yet but playing like a strong second-tierer – a level long inhabited by David Ferrer, Juan Martin del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych.
Make room for Iron Stan.
“It was a crazy match,” Wawrinka said in his on-court interview as Murray trudged to his hasty press conference. “To beat him in three sets was just amazing.”