NEW YORK -- The U.S. Open heat can play tricks on the eyes -- just ask teary Eugenie Bouchard -- but two of the three men’s stars here Monday clearly appeared in their element.
Novak Djokovic danced. Andy Murray cursed.
Djokovic, the top seed, reigning Wimbledon champion and father-to-be, beat German Philipp Kohlschreiber 6-1, 7-5, 6-4 in a tidy 2 hours, 3 minutes at Louis Armstrong Stadium.
The on-court interviewer requested Djokovic dance to please a drenched crowd. He obliged, breaking it down for the second time in four matches.
Less than an hour later, Murray took one of 23,000 seats at Arthur Ashe Stadium in anger. The Brit/Scot had just given up a service game to France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and expressed his dismay during the changeover, over and over again, with the same word beginning with the letter "f."
Murray returned to the court and defeated Tsonga, who played with his shirt tucked in, 7-5, 7-5, 6-4 in 2 hours, 35 minutes.
Djokovic and Murray will face off in the first big-boy match of the U.S. Open in a quarterfinal on Wednesday. Djokovic will have reason to dance, and Murray to curse, if recent history is any indication.
Murray was considered the last man to make up tennis’ Big Four, securing his place among Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal by winning Olympic gold and the U.S. Open in 2012 and Wimbledon in 2013.
The first British man to win Wimbledon, or any Grand Slam, since Fred Perry in 1936, you may have read.
But Murray is seeded eighth here and ranked ninth.
He underwent back surgery 2 1/2 weeks after losing in the 2013 U.S. Open quarterfinals.
He split with coach Ivan Lendl in March (peculiarly choosing another decorated champion to replace him -- Amelie Mauresmo).
He hasn’t won a tournament since 2013 Wimbledon. He hasn’t made a final since the same tournament. He hadn’t beaten a top-10 player, either, until dropping 10th-ranked Tsonga on Monday.
Coupled with Federer’s resurgence, Murray’s place in the Big Four is undoubtedly the loosest of the group.
“His confidence isn’t there,” former No. 1 Jim Courier said during the Murray-Tsonga broadcast.
“He’s been on and off this year,” Djokovic said.
Murray, born one week before Djokovic in 1987, is not as bearish.
“I don't feel like I'm that far away from playing my best tennis,” said Murray, pointing out Mauresmo’s effect might not be fully visible until he’s had an offseason to work with the Frenchwoman.
Murray lost in his two U.S. Open warm-up tournaments by giving up a lead in the deciding set against Tsonga in Toronto and squandering a two-break lead on Federer in the second set in Cincinnati.
Here, he’s looked the shakiest of the Big Three (Nadal withdrew before the tournament due to a right wrist injury).
Murray needed four sets to overcome cramps and Dutchman Robin Haase in his opener, swept a qualifier in the second round and was needled to four sets again in the third round.
He passed a stifling Tsonga test in the fourth, which proved much more of a battle than the scoreline suggested.
It won’t get tougher than Wednesday, though.
Djokovic actually was eliminated from both U.S. Open tuneups a round earlier than Murray, but he’s now performing like the man who made the last four finals here and 22 straight Grand Slam quarterfinals overall.
In 2012, Murray ousted Djokovic in what tied the longest U.S. Open final ever, 7–6 (10), 7–5, 2–6, 3–6, 6–2 in a shade under five hours. Can Murray withstand that kind of heat? Perhaps his preparation will pay off.
Not his time in New York -- following Rory McIlroy at the Barclays, watching U.S.-Puerto Rico at Madison Square Garden or grocery shopping at Whole Foods in Columbus Circle.
But before that, Murray and Mauresmo spent a training block in Miami in July.
“That's what you put the work in for, so that when you come to these events and you do have to play against the best players that you're ready,” he said. “And, you know, as much as it's incredibly tough and challenging, the match, that's what you enjoy. You know, playing on Wednesday, Wednesday night against the No. 1 player in the world is exciting. If you aren't getting motivated or pumped for those matches, then that's when there's a problem and it's time to maybe stop.”