Murray ready to bed down for one final push for glory

An eyemask and lavender pillows might be the critical items to assist Andy Murray\'s pursuit of a second US Open title.

Published: 07th September 2016 07:57 AM  |   Last Updated: 08th September 2016 07:51 PM   |  A+A-

Cincinnati Tennis_Mukh (1)

Andy Murray, of Britain, returns to Milos Raonic, of Canada, during the semifinals of the Western & Southern Open tennis tournament in Mason, Ohio. | AP

Earplugs, an eyemask and lavender pillows might be the critical items to assist Andy Murray's pursuit of a second US Open title, after the Scot admitted that his dramatic improvement in Monday night's 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 clubbing of Grigor Dimitrov had stemmed from a good night's sleep.

As a city, New York is notorious for its insomnia. And Murray - despite his reluctance to visit anywhere racier than the Whole Foods Market - had been infected by the same symptom. "I've slept badly here," he said. "I kept waking up, tossing and turning in the bed." But then, with the street noise temporarily muted by the Labour Day holiday weekend, he put in a solid 12 hours on Sunday night and woke up a new man.

More uninterrupted rest will be essential if Murray is to continue his progress through a draw that would give most players sleepless nights. Today's opponent, Kei Nishikori, has so much ball-striking talent that he brings the whole locker-room to an awestruck halt when he is on his game - and he clearly was against the huge-serving Ivo Karlovic in the fourth round, judging by an absurdly low tally of just two unforced groundstroke

errors in the match. Then, if Murray should progress, it will be a former grand slam champion in the semi-final: either Juan Martin del Potro or Stan Wawrinka, two men who can punch a hole through the backboard with their high-velocity groundstrokes. Some draws open up as you move forwards; this one seems to be closing down.

Energy levels are a factor for everyone left in the tournament, but no one has played more than Murray since the end of the clay-court season: 23 completed matches, including three titles. (For purposes of comparison, Nishikori has also played 23 times in that time, del Potro 18, Wawrinka 13 and Novak Djokovic just 11.) Murray described on Monday night how he had received a pep talk from his coaching staff, Ivan Lendl and Jamie Delgado, who encouraged him to push on through the final few days of a gruelling six weeks away from home.

"I chatted to the team after the last match [against Lorenzi]. It was like, 'Look, you've got a few days left here; give it everything you've got. Let's be professional as possible, work hard in practice, and go out there and fight. There's a break coming soon.' That was an important chat to have because I definitely was a bit flat a couple of days ago and I couldn't afford to let that happen against Grigor."

The results of Lendl and Delgado's intervention could be seen in statistical form, as Murray's serve racked up numbers on the speed gun that he had never reached before. At least, not on a credible measuring device. (He did clock 149mph at the Davis Cup in Birmingham, only six months ago, but everyone present agreed that the equipment used there would have turned Albert Steptoe into Usain Bolt.) Monday's scores included a 138mph ace in the second set and a 141mph one to conclude the first. Murray's tactics were to hit as hard and flat to the Dimitrov backhand as he could, and he sounded almost surprised afterwards that they had proven so effective, with only 55 per cent of the returns landing in court. That is an absurdly low figure at this level, and it gave Murray an insuperable advantage.

The Nishikori match will surely be as different as they come. Here is a man with a magic wand of a racket, capable of improvising deadly strikes from all parts of the court. You cannot just rely on hitting heavy and deep, because Nishikori will step up to the baseline and take the ball on the half-volley like Djokovic does, using his fast hands and whipcord wrists.

The weakness to Nishikori's game is the serve, which is really just a way of starting the point. Against Karlovic, his first delivery averaged just 106mph - a long way short of the 126mph that Murray managed against Dimitrov. And it was this chink that Murray targeted when these two met in the Davis Cup tie in March (under the gaze of that dodgy speed-gun). He repeatedly put his whole bodyweight

behind a thumping return and then rushed in to the net behind it, catching Nishikori still off balance as he came out of his service action.

That is what you have to do against the Japanese - make him feel like he is being thrown around like a sock in a tumbledryer. Because if he settles into a rhythm, Nishikori can be punishingly good, as he demonstrated here two years ago by eliminating Djokovic in a four-set semi-final. Murray will need all his beauty sleep if he wants to prevail.

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