The old band are back together. For the first time since Wimbledon 2017, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal are all playing at the same Grand Slam.
The ‘Big Four’ have all suffered serious injuries in the past few years, and while Djokovic, Federer and Nadal have made winning returns, the spotlight turns to Murray at the US Open as he looks to put his hip problems behind him and rekindle his magic of old.
Here, Michael Hincks breaks down Murray’s hard-court season to date, and assesses his chances at Flushing Meadows as the former world number one chases a fourth Grand Slam title...
The swift turnaround from the French Open to Wimbledon is what makes the grass-court season difficult to predict, with just two simultaneous ATP 500 events – Queen’s and Halle – offering us insight into who looks off the boil, and who looks set to challenge for major honours.
However, in the build-up to the US Open, there is a greater opportunity to view the lay of the land, as players trundle across North America to compete in two Masters tournaments – Toronto and Cincinnati – as well as another 500 in Washington.
If you’re Alexander Zverev, Nadal or Djokovic, you are relatively content with how the hard-court season is faring. Zverev defended his title in Washington, Nadal won in Toronto, and Djokovic reigned supreme in Cincinnati – completing a Masters clean sweep to boot.
This trio make up the most-fancied four for US Open glory along with Federer, while sitting in a pocket of outside contenders, next to Juan Martin del Potro and Marin Cilic, is Murray – deemed a 16/1 shot, which is more of a testimony to his past success than his 2018 so far.
When reviewing his hard-court exploits this season, it does not take long to scan through. Having reached the last 16 in Washington, a 3am finish when beating Marius Copil meant Murray was unable to play his quarter-final against Alex de Minaur. He subsequently pulled out of the Rogers Cup in Toronto, and went on to lose in the first round of Cincinnati to Lucas Pouille.
Despite not wanting to rush back into action, Murray found himself playing eight hours of tennis in just three rounds at the Washington Open. To have prevailed in all three will have done wonders for his confidence, while the second-round victory over compatriot Kyle Edmund served as a reminder that he is not ready to pass on the baton quite yet.
However, concerns will remain over whether Murray can handle five-set tennis. He deemed Wimbledon a Grand Slam too soon some two months ago, and while every day is a step closer to full fitness for the 31-year-old, his need to pull out of Washington and withdraw from Toronto means there are doubts he can last a fortnight in New York.
There are two factors, though, one a somewhat constant, the other unalterable, which can at least boost his prospects.
The constant is the fact he will play every other day. Weather means that could change, but the ability in principal to have a whole day off allows for a greater recovery period. Every second will count for Murray in this instance.
What Murray cannot change, however, is the draw.
It is easy to forget that the two-time Wimbledon champion only withdrew from his home Grand Slam last month after the draw took place.
He was handed a first-round match against Benoit Paire, but had Denis Shapovalov, Del Potro and Nadal as potential second, third and fourth-round opponents. It could well be that Murray did not feel ready for five-set tennis, but the prospect of having to navigate past one of tennis’ rising stars and a 6’6” powerhouse just to earn yourself a match against a 17-time Grand Slam champion will likely have influenced his decision to withdraw.
On this occasion, Murray’s draw looks somewhat sweeter. A first-round match against Australian James Duckworth is followed by a Spanish test against one of Fernando Verdasco or Feliciano Lopez. Get through that and a third-round encounter against third seed Del Potro could well await.
Murray v Del Potro is a match-up which regularly delivers. The two players display a raw emotion on court – see: 2012 Olympics final – that leaves even the viewer exhausted, and this potential meeting is certainly one for the first-week diary at Flushing Meadows.
With that pencilled in, the victor will be favourite to reach the semi-finals, but for that to be Murray, after the year he has had, it would be nothing short of remarkable.
Murray needs a miracle to pick up his second US Open trophy six years after his first, but he will be spurred on by Federer, Nadal and Djokovic’s successful return from injuries.
The Brit will be desperate to prove all of the ‘Big Four’ can continue roaring in their 30s. The US Open may be a step too soon, but Murray is used to defying the odds. Get past Del Potro, and he’ll have us all dreaming once more.