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Murray makes a fearsome fourth

Scotsman's four-set toppling of top-ranked Nadal marks his arrival at tennis' elite level and sets up U.S. Open final against Federer today.

September 08, 2008|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

NEW YORK -- The common phrase "big three" in men's tennis might need to undergo some heavy editing because of the ascent of a 21-year-old Scot with a glistening game and an apparent inability to purchase a razor.

"Big three" has applied to Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, and the chasm between them and the rankings underlings, but "big four" seemed more operative early Sunday evening because of the sheer caliber of Andy Murray.

Scruffy in the cheeks and gifted in the backhand and increasingly self-assured because he's increasingly fit, Murray accessed a new echelon inside Arthur Ashe Stadium when, in his first Grand Slam semifinal, he stood right in there with No. 1-ranked Nadal and looked downright cozy.

He completed a two-day, rain-halted win by 6-2, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-4. He moved to a final today opposite Federer, whom he's actually beaten twice in three non-Grand Slam meetings. He showed elite fortitude in rebounding from a 3-1, 30-love hole in the fourth set. He failed to mourn his break-point ratio that once stood at a frustrating two for 18. He displayed his typically excellent court coverage.

He played purposeful tennis that gave spectators the peculiar sight of Nadal being run to the extent of looking just one tiny smidgen haggard.

It wasn't the outcome so much as the look of the outcome.

Pondering Murray's long-term future, Nadal's coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, said jovially, "Bad luck for us! I think that Murray is a very good player. He has a good serve, a good backhand, intelligent on the court, has all the things and I think in the next years he can be where he is now, to be No. 1 or 2 or 3, I don't know."

Said the younger Nadal in his charmingly fractured English, "He can do it everything."

Said Murray, "I have the tennis to compete with these guys."

As the United Kingdom's tennis brains yearned forever for a superhero, Murray came along from Dunblane, Scotland, until he moved to Barcelona at 15. Inheriting Tim Henman's wearying mantle as the No. 1 British hope, Murray moved along somewhat promisingly in recent years but hadn't reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal until this year's Wimbledon.

There, he began a recent penchant for flexing his muscles, which, while well shy of Nadal's for similarity to Greek statues, reflected the heightened fitness he felt on court since he began traveling with a training "team," as he put it.

Still, he hadn't beaten a "big three" member at a Grand Slam, and he lacked a match telltale of his capabilities until this weekend. It began on Saturday with Tropical Storm Hanna looming nearby, Nadal looking like some impostor who showed up in a Nadal suit and Murray jumping ahead, 6-2, 7-6 (5), 2-3, until the deluge.

When they resumed in fine sunshine and a different stadium 26 hours later, Murray had ample chances to quiver in his first such moment, especially after a colossus of a second game in the fourth set when he hoarded seven break-point chances and converted none. Yet he showed only sturdy preparedness, saying later, "In the past I maybe did think about pressure because I hadn't worked maybe as hard as I should have, but now that's not the case."

When finally Murray pursued a Nadal drop shot, pushed a backhand pass on by, then told Nadal it had been a privilege to play him, "big four" seemed the term. Already Murray will rise to No. 4 in the world today. And as this is the Grand Slam Murray loves the most -- he'll wax on about 2003 and his first trip as a junior and his first stay in a five-star hotel -- and the Grand Slam tennis scholars have deemed it his best chance with its fast courts, his arrival seemed legitimate and overshadowed Nadal's fatigue.

"Probably more than 84 matches, no?" Nadal said of his jam-packed year with its French Open and Wimbledon and Olympic titles and all the hubbub therein. So after he accurately said, "I accept the losses with the same calm as when I win," he emerged from his news conference into a hallway and smilingly, playfully hopped onto the shoulders of his physiotherapist, Rafael Maymo, an incredible Grand Slam year complete and the last opponent worthy.

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