NEW YORK -- It arrives near the end of an 11-month season that spans six continents, a two-week crucible played on concussive concrete that grinds the body to its physical limit. The atmosphere can be overwhelming, the conditions extreme, the unexpected becomes routine. You don't win the U.S. Open so much as survive it.
The hurly-burly was far less metaphorical Saturday afternoon, as Andy Murray prevailed 5-7, 6-2, 6-1, 7-6(7) over Tomas Berdych amid conditions too extreme for the typical rec-league match but appropriate enough for the semifinal of a Grand Slam tournament. It started more than an hour late due to heavy rainfall and ended with a tornado rapidly approaching the grounds, forcing the evacuation of Arthur Ashe Stadium during the opening set of the second semifinal between Novak Djokovic and David Ferrer.
You want distractions? For once the airplanes taking off over Ashe from nearby LaGuardia Airport were the least of the players' concerns. Winds upwards of 20 m.p.h. entered the stadium from the southeast, spiraling downward from the mezzanine and whipping detritus across the court like tumbleweeds. During one point a changeover chair clattered onto the court, spilling the contents of Murray's bag onto the blue DecoTurf. Clouds came and went with time-lapse frequency. This was the chaos and stimuli and madness of the Open made manifest.
All of which heightened the impact of Murray's composed performance. Now just one victory away from becoming the first British man to win a major tournament in 76 years -- and ending one of the most mythical droughts in sports -- it's obvious the 25-year-old is as ready as he'll ever be.
Murray's mastery of the wind -- he committed just 20 unforced errors compared to 64 for Berdych -- showcased his matured game and patient, varied shotmaking. The gusts played havoc with the Czech's high service toss, which often caught a draft mid-flight and landed several feet behind him. Both players were forced to recalibrate, dialing down their serves to ensure they landed in court, but Murray's superior accuracy made the difference. "There is not a player who likes these conditions," Berdych lamented afterward, "but there are some players that these kind of conditions can suit to their game a bit better than the other ones."
Four times Murray has played in a Grand Slam final, in each instance coming up short, most recently in an ennobling defeat to Roger Federer at this year's Wimbledon. But Murray rebounded from that setback by winning Olympic gold at the All England Club less than a month later, lifting a confidence level that's soared under new coach Ivan Lendl even further. "[It] did take a bit of the pressure off," he admitted. "Maybe had less doubts about myself and my place in the game just now."
What's more, Murray will enjoy a full day of rest ahead of a final that's been rescheduled for Monday afternoon, recuperating in comfort as Djokovic and Ferrer resume their semifinal Sunday at 11 a.m. ET. (It was suspended with Ferrer leading 5-2 in the opening set.) The U.S. Open is the only major that schedules the semifinals and finals for the men and women on back-to-back days, a made-for-TV concept the players hate and lobbied successfully to abolish starting next year. This marks the fifth consecutive year that inclement weather has forced the men's final to Monday, a curious streak given the run of perfect weather and Sunday finals in Flushing Meadows from 1986 through 2007.
The door to opportunity seldom requires a picked lock, only the right combination. For Murray, already regarded by many as the greatest player never to win a major, it's hard to reckon a more favorable scenario. Both Federer and Rafael Nadal, two of Murray's historic bugaboos at the business end of majors, are collectively absent from the semifinals at a Grand Slam for the first time since George W. Bush's first term. And the Scot's confidence is no doubt peaking after coming from behind to triumph in his past two matches.
The distractions will only continue from here -- like when a half-cocked Sean Connery and Alex Ferguson hijacked the post-match press conference -- but Murray's lofty morale, additional recovery time and remarkable focus portend well heading into Monday's final, a platinum opportunity to cap his golden summer.
If not now, when?