When asked for his predictions before the 2011 U.S. Open, four-time champ and American icon John McEnroe surprised tennis fans with his response. It was not world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, defending champ Rafael Nadal, or even five-time Open winner Roger Federer who he was putting his money on -- but rather Andy Murray, who McEnroe dubbed "the hungriest man in the draw."
Over an afternoon chat in the players' garden at the Open, the lanky 6-foot-3 Scotsman lived up to his recent anointing in more ways than one, working his way through four spicy tuna rolls, followed by a banana, and said he wasn't surprised by the pressure that greeted him on this side of the pond.
"Most times when the Grand Slams come around there's normally a few ex-players who will put a little bit of extra pressure on you," said Murray, "but you just gotta deal with it."
Currently the world No. 4, Murray has long grown used to it. After all, he has the expectations of all of Great Britain resting squarely on his shoulders -- as the one great hope to win the United Kingdom's first Slam after a 75-year drought that followed Fred Perry's eight-title run. And the burden just keeps getting heavier the closer he gets.
Murray is in the midst of his best year to date on the tour, having made it to the finals of the Australian Open for the second time, and the semi-finals of both the French Open and Wimbledon. And he arrived in Flushing Meadows fresh off a big win at the Cincinnati Masters, which has given him an extra boost of confidence.
Now in through to the quarterfinals, Murray has already come farther than he did at last year's Open, when Stan Wawrinka knocked him out in the third round. And should things continue to go his way, he says he feels good about having to go head-to-head with Nadal in the semis, despite losing to him at both Wimbledon and Roland Garros this year, and a three-set loss that required two tiebreakers.
"The only time I played him here I won against him," he said of his 2008 U.S. Open victory over Nadal in the semis. "And this is probably my best surface to play against him on. I like playing on hard courts, it's my favorite surface and I feel like I move well on the hard courts, which is so important against him. I'd like to get another chance to play against him."
Murray said he would also like this to be the year that he finishes at a higher ranking, having ended the last three years at his current spot of No. 4., and explained that so far this year he has more points than the current No. 3, Federer.
"Novak for the best part of five years was ranked three and he's obviously jumped to one this year, and Rafa was ranked number two for four or five years before he got to one," he said, "because once you get right to the top, those first couple of spots, it's a big jump even though it's just a couple of places. So I'm getting there but it's taking quite a lot of time."
Though often criticized for not being mentally tough enough, Murray's self-belief is apparent when he speaks about his place in the tennis pantheon, and this surge of determination has translated to the court. He has even retired his usual conservative color schemes for a flashier new red-and-black getup, drawing comments from fans and commentators alike, though he doesn't really see why a little razzmatazz should come as such a surprise.
"When I was growing up I used to always want to get the Agassi clothes so my mum got me the denim shorts with the pink cycling shorts underneath, and I also had a cap that had like the wig, like the Agassi long hair on the back," he recalled with a laugh. "He was a great character and you don't see that much nowadays. I think he's quite competitive and, for me, I like it."
Of course, Murray's own competitiveness is more John McEnroe than Agassi, so much so that McEnroe has said he shares a kinship with the tempestuous Scot. Best known for his fiery streak, Murray loses his temper, clenches his fists and screams in the direction of his box during matches. He even holds the record as the first and only British player in the more than 100 years of the Davis Cup to be fined for swearing.
"We get quite a rough ride, the Brits and the Americans, if we swear on the court we get fined like instantly, whereas, an Austrian player or a German player can swear but an umpire might not necessarily know what that means so they kind of get let off with it," he explained, before grinning and adding, "So I need to learn to swear in a different language."
Murray's dry humor and shy demeanor off the court have let him slip under the radar to some degree with all the fanfare, despite his ability to beat any player on any surface. In the era of "Roger and Rafa," two of the best players in the history of the sport, and now Djokovic at the top of the heap, Murray is all too often overlooked, existing in the shadow of tennis' power trifecta and their victories.
"I understand in terms of titles and everything those guys have won," he said of the spotlight shining on the top three players, who continually point out to the press that it's foolish to leave Murray out of the conversation. "And I understand for me, if I want to win I have to play a great tournament. But I don't mind if no one speaks about me or thinks I might win it. It doesn't make a difference."
He's focusing on what will make a difference, like the strict new diet that finds him requiring less sleep and waking up without soreness or stiffness. And though he misses "biscuits and crisps and Milkybars" if the discipline gets him into the coveted inner-circle of Grand Slam champions, it will be well worth it.
"I know those guys will for sure be around in the latter stages of the competition," he says he says of the Big Three. "And I want to be there as well."