Monday August 27th, 2012

Roger Federer, Andy Murray Andy Murray winning the U.S. Open would complicate the 2012 Player of the Year race. (Zumapress)

It's hard not to feel for Andy Murray, even if he does have a spiffy gold medal hanging from his neck. When he suffers big losses, the pressure on him to breakthrough to win a Grand Slam tournament increases, and when he scores a big win, the pressure on him doesn't dissipate in the slightest. The Brit now has something no man in the U.S. Open draw has -- an Olympic singles gold medal -- but according to John McEnroe, that just means he has more to lose when the Open begins on Monday.

Speaking on a conference call in advance of the tournament, McEnroe downplayed the importance of Murray's Olympic run.

"Yes, he's won this Olympic thing," McEnroe said, "but I think it's pretty universally understood that it's not quite ‑‑ while it's become more important obviously in the fact that it was at Wimbledon, it's not thought of in the same way as the Slams. So I don't think the burden is off him but I'm hoping that it can break the ice so to speak and he can win some Slams. I think he has the most to lose and the most to gain at this point.

"It's conceivable that Murray could make an argument were he to win this, and then have a strong [finish to the] season, and, say, win the Masters, there's a possibility that you could say he's the best player in the world this year. To me, that's an unbelievable upside."

But the stakes are high for Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer as well. Not since 2005 have three different players won the first three Slams of the year. That year it was Marat Safin spoiling the Federer/Rafael Nadal party, as he won the Australian Open early in the year. This year's parity, with Djokovic, Nadal and Federer splitting the three majors and Murray winning Olympic gold, means the race for Player of the Year -- and the No. 1 ranking between Federer and Djokovic -- could be decided in New York.

"They have all got a lot at stake because you can easily make the case that if any one of the three wins it, they will and should be No. 1 for the year," Patrick McEnroe said. "Obviously there's still tennis to be played post the Open, but certainly either Roger or Djokovic win this, they are No. 1 this year because they have won two majors."

The same logic applies to the women's draw, as Victoria Azarenka dominated the first three months of the season on hard courts, Maria Sharapova ruled the clay (yes, it is still weird to type that out) and Serena Williams rolled on grass. While Serena's recent dominance gives the illusion that she's the odds-on favorite for Player of the Year, Chris Evert isn't convinced. Yet.

"Serena is not a lock," Evert said. "If Serena wins the Open, she would be a lock. But if Sharapova wins the Open -- to win two Grand Slams, that would be a lock."

And if No. 1 Azarenka comes out on top, there's a strong argument to be made that she's the best hard-court player in the women's game right now. Her only complete-match loss on the surface this year was to Marion Bartoli in Miami (she retired to Tamira Paszek in Montreal). If Azarenka can win seven matches in New York, her hard-court record in completed matches this year would be 33-1 with five titles.

But do the women have the stamina to summon their best in New York? "So much has to do with how sharp they are mentally, how fresh they are," Evert said. "Everybody's body seems to be breaking down a little bit now and they are starting to get fatigued.

"It has been an usually tremendous year for the players as far as opportunities, but really, there's been a lot of tennis. You throw in a Davis Cup and Fed Cup, it's been grueling. So the U.S. Open comes at a time when it's the hottest. I always felt like I had to be in the best shape for the U.S. Open condition‑wise, because of the heat. "It's the end of the year, the toughest tournament on hard court, which is going to be maybe even hotter, and you just have to be physically in your best shape at the U.S. Open I think of any of the Grand Slams. That's going to be a factor physically and mentally how fresh they are, and hopefully ‑‑ I don't know, the cream is going to rise to the top during this tournament."

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