Since assembling new team, Murray has flourished, matured

NEW YORK -- Not long ago, Andy Murray wasn't such a fan favorite in Britain. He was accused of being too cocky, didn't take his fitness seriously and was always injured. Just when progress was being made under coaching guru Brad Gilbert, he decided to split with the fast-talking Californian, heftily being bankrolled by the U.K.'s Lawn Tennis Association. Murray's inability to issue a public thank you to Gilbert rankled further.

Since assembling a new team late last year, which, really, could be a team given the numbers, the 21-year-old has flourished and, admittedly, matured. (One of those in his group, by the way, is a P.R. guy tending to Murray's image.)

His 6-2, 7-5, 6-2 loss to Roger Federer in his first Grand Slam final Monday evening appears simply to be a blip. Murray didn't want to dwell on it, but not having a full day to prepare for the final, while Federer did, thanks to the remnants of Tropical Storm Hanna and some wacky scheduling by the USTA, didn't help.

In any case, he was saying all the right things following the one-sided affair.

"I know mentally now that I can get to a Slam final, and physically," said Murray, who inched closer to becoming Britain's first men's singles Grand Slam champion since Fred Perry, in 1936. "The only thing it comes down to is the tennis. You work harder, you know what things were breaking down, what things need to get better, and you go work on them. I hope this would be the start of big things for me, but I'm going to need to put a lot of hard work in."

Murray did work hard in his semifinal against the world's hottest -- and perhaps most tired -- player, Rafael Nadal. Described as a "street fighter'' by coaching icon Nick Bollettieri, Murray, a boxing fan, dealt a knockout blow by taking the ball early, especially on his backhand, serving huge, returning well and mixing it up, even serving and volleying on second serve. He's now beaten everyone in the top five.

His ascent began in the fourth round of Wimbledon against Frenchman Richard Gasquet, when he won over the crowd by rallying from two sets down to reach a first Grand Slam quarterfinal. Murray's now-signature move of flexing his biceps surfaced. Nadal, the king of muscle, at least in tennis terms, overpowered him in the last eight.

Murray kept going. In July's Masters Series event in Toronto, he pulled off another first, topping sulking Serb Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals before being derailed, again, by Nadal. Earlier in Toronto, he suggested his best tennis would come when he was 23.

Murray proceeded to win his first Masters title in Cincinnati, dispatching Djokovic in the final. His semifinal demolition of seasonal ace leader Ivo Karlovic -- Murray broke the 6-foot-10 Croat a whopping four times in two sets -- wasn't too bad.

"He is now doing a lot of things I was asking him to do, like being much more aggressive and stop hitting so many damn drop shots," Gilbert said last week. "If he plays more like that, then great things are going to happen to him because he has great talent."

Obviously in a jovial mood following a victory that salvaged his season and brought Grand Slam crown No. 13, Federer lavished praise on Murray. When Murray topped him in the first round in Dubai this spring, Federer wasn't so generous, criticizing his opponent's defensive approach.

"He's got many different opportunities to play any player, I think,'' Federer said. "That's what makes him dangerous. He's got the good slice, he can come to the net, he can stay back, he can stay very far back. So he's got three different options, and not many players have that out there.''

Murray is the first to admit that serve, potentially huge, still needs improving. His percentage in 2008 stood at 57 as the U.S. Open began, placing him outside the top 50. Against Federer the number was 56 percent. Constantly saying in the summer he was pleased with his second serve, Murray only triumphed on 47 percent of those points Monday. There were at least two ill-advised drop shots against Federer, too.

The serve will get special attention when Murray, who rises to a career-best fourth in the rankings, returns to work following a brief holiday.

"When I'm serving above 65 percent on the first serves and hitting them 125 miles per hour and above consistently, I'm very, very difficult to break," he said.

Maybe he should consider New York as a vacation destination. Murray has never had a problem attracting fans at Flushing Meadows, pointing out more than once in his career the campaign's fourth Slam is his favorite of them all. Murray drew more admirers when he expressed his fondness for comedian Will Ferrell over the weekend.

"The support that I got in my last three, four matches has been awesome," he said. "Hopefully next year I'll get the same."

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.