<
>

Andy Murray's demons come from within

Andy Murray has proved he has the technical tools to be in tennis' upper echelon. Clive Mason/Getty Images

After the fortnight, the numbers are clean, reinforced by a raucous and inspiring U.S. Open. On paper, they come one after the other: one, two, three and four, a solid order separated only by the pause of a comma.

Yet it is obvious, after the completion of another major championship, that there is at least a river -- some might argue a lake, a gulf or quite possibly an ocean -- separating the men's tennis big three of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, and the fourth: the talented, hungry and totally vexed Andy Murray.

Djokovic is the king of the tennis world, having won his first U.S. Open dominantly, by saving two match points against Federer in the semifinals and following it up by being better than Nadal whenever it was time for someone to blink. No one -- not Federer winning the first two sets against Djokovic, then serving 5-3, 40-15 in the fifth; not Nadal up 2-0 in each of the first two sets of the final or with the momentum, finally having won a set in the fourth -- could find the formula to throw a tactic at Djokovic that he could not handle.

Yet it is Murray who, by once again leaving a major longing, may be the most compelling player in the game. Few athletes in the sport find themselves in his curious and uncomfortable position: ranked high enough to be unquestionably elite, yet unable as of today to solidify himself in the class of the truly great players of his time.

Murray may go down simply as the greatest player to have never won a major, and while the common narrative is that he is merely suffering the misfortune of playing in the time of Federer, Nadal and now Djokovic, the truth is that the reason the gap between the big three and Murray is greater than ever is Andy Murray himself.

For proof, Murray needn't look much further than Djokovic.

A year ago leading up to the Open, Djokovic hadn't beaten a top-10 player in 2010. He was terrifically powerful, yet would prematurely end points by blinking, attempting drop shots, trying to change the rhythm of long points instead of having the will to win extended rallies power-for-power. He would lose concentration and in turn, his serve and forehand would abandon him. When the momentum soured, Djokovic would sour along with it.

Djokovic had all the shots, a powerful serve, a terrific defensive game and tremendous court coverage, and a year ago the Djokovic narrative in 2010 was simply that he was playing in the wrong era. Too bad for him.

All of this sounds just like Andy Murray.

Then Djokovic, after losing to Nadal in the U.S. Open final, decided he would not be the one to blink. He was terrific in the Davis Cup for Serbia and decided, finally, to win the fight with himself he had been losing. No longer was he the one more easily rattled on the court. He would not be the one to alter the rally, to shorten the point. He cleaned up his serve. He won the Australian, beating Murray. He would win 20 matches against top-10 players.

It appeared that this year's Open would be different for Murray. He escaped being down two sets in the second round to the Dutchman Robin Haase. He destroyed Donald Young in the fourth round and summarily neutralized the dangerous John Isner in the quarters. It appeared he had found himself, especially against Isner, reducing him to a big server who could do little else.

Murray's return game and defense were so solid that when Isner found he couldn't ace him, his imprecise court game was exposed.

He reached the semifinals against Nadal, becoming only the seventh player in the history of the Open era to reach the semis in all four Slams in a single year. He is that close.

And then, against Nadal, in a maddening display of fatal, unfocused moments, Murray turned back into Murray. When Djokovic defeated Federer and Nadal, he would not be overcome. He did not blink, not on long rallies or ping-pong volleys at the net or after being broken. Against Nadal, it was Murray who could not withstand the pressure of the moment, did not have the mental toughness and confidence that his game at its best was strong enough to withstand Nadal's best, the ability to believe that during a point he can be one shot better, and if he loses, he will win the next.

What Murray revealed during the tournament wasn't whether he's going to win a major, but why he hasn't. He's been in three finals (the 2008 U.S. Open to Federer, and the Australian twice: against Federer in 2010 and Djokovic this year) but is 2-8 in majors against Djokovic, Federer and Nadal, and, perhaps worse, is 2-4 in majors against the rest of the players rounding out the top 11 (David Ferrer, Robin Soderling, Gael Monfils, Mardy Fish, Tomas Berdych, Nicolas Almagro and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga), for a grand total of 4-12 in majors against the top-10 players in the world, excluding himself.

Meanwhile, Djokovic finished 12-2 against Nadal, Federer and Murray.

Perhaps the issue isn't luck, but style, and as the air grows thinner leading to Monday's finale, the best players rely on their signatures -- the greatest, most consistent elements of their games that separate them from their peers, difference-makers in the clutch moments.

The top three each have the combination of a signature personality on the court and a certain mental toughness and focus that Murray has yet to display in championship combination. With Djokovic, in the tight moments, he will rely on his incredible defense, court coverage and shot-making. In the first set of the quarterfinals against fellow Serbian Janko Tipsarevic, Djokovic trailed 2-0 and facing a break point. He responded by winning the next five games.

In the clinch, Federer relies on his aggressiveness, his ability to turn every juncture of a point into an offensive one, daring his opponents to try to outlast him during rallies, remaining even calmer as the pressure builds.

Nadal -- as he did to a weakening Andy Roddick (and as Djokovic would subsequently do to the great Nadal) -- applies relentless shot-making and a tireless offensive attack that wears down even the most game opponents; expects through sheer force to survive each rally; and forces his opponents to make one extra shot on his terms that they eventually buckle and break. Up two sets but down 0-40 in the first game of the third, it was Nadal who wouldn't lose a moment of concentration, saving four break points, winning the game by smothering Roddick's fire.

Murray, meanwhile, plays an eclectic game in which he does virtually everything well -- some things, such as returning serve and court coverage, excellently -- but does not impose his will on opponents in the same devastating manner as Nadal, Djokovic or Federer. Murray is a master of improvisation -- he will serve well, slice, drop and baseline rally with ease -- but does not seem to have the concentration to bludgeon, as Nadal did to Roddick during a point in the third set when he fired forehand after forehand to Roddick's backhand, making him blink, driving him into the ground. Even Roddick had to expect Nadal to finally go cross-court, but he did not. He was too busy imposing his will on the match.

And then there is perhaps the biggest difference: toughness and will. During the Tipsarevic match, and especially during his epic 28-minute, first-set tiebreak against Alexandr Dolgopolov, Djokovic never wilted in the championship crunch. He fought off four set points and did not allow himself to be enveloped by the negative energy that can cost a player key points. His concentration, along with even more precise net play, has been the difference between historically losing to Nadal and Federer and now catapulting them.

Murray can even undermine his own positivity, outclassing Isner and still inexplicably losing his concentration. He was up comfortably yet allowed small annoyances -- a rowdy fan, a missed forehand -- to break his concentration and turn an easy afternoon into a difficult one. At one point in the third, Murray yelled to himself "Stop it! You know what he's going to do! You know what he's going to do." He oddly used a key moment of the match for self-flagellation, and lost his momentum in the process.

Murray was most impressive against Isner not only in neutralizing the big man's serve, but by turning the match into a test of shot-making accuracy, a test that resulted in a favorable mismatch. Isner committed 54 unforced errors to Murray's 20. Isner simply was not precise enough, missing easy volleys and wild forehands as time grew short, and as Murray rose for the championship kill, each miss by Isner spelled his doom, and no 145 mph serve could save him.

In a bizarre hard-court season of earthquakes and hurricanes, torrential rain and a surprise run of Americans, the bedrock of the men's game nevertheless has emerged: The remaining four players happen to be the four best in the world; three of whom know that, when the money is on the table, they have the ability to reach across it and take the pot.

They know it to the tune of 30 combined majors, years of being top-ranked in the world and, from Djokovic, the greatest individual season in the sport -- and then there is Andy Murray, still waiting.

By watching how Djokovic tackled his own lack of discipline to become a great champion, Murray may find the answers he's looking for.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.