THE Olympics always falls on a leap year so perhaps it is appropriate that it appears to have coincided with Andy Murray's great leap forward. Although the Scot has won just two matches on the warm-up hard court tournaments in Toronto and Cincinnati combined, the gold medal he carries with him to Flushing Meadows and the fashion he won it in makes him a clearer contender for that elusive first grand slam victory here than at any previous major.
Brad Gilbert, the coach turned ESPN pundit who guided Murray's fortunes from July 2006 to November 2007, feels the Scot is one of a handful of men who can win the title – he wouldn't write off the 2009 winner Juan Martin Del Potro either – and would hardly be shocked if the 25-year-old brought the trophy back with him to Scotland.
He is inclined to make light of the misadventures – the Scot pulled out of Toronto with a knee problem then lost early to the French lucky loser Jeremy Chardy in Cincinnati – and has been particularly encouraged by the Scot's willingness to dictate points on his terms during his recent duels with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.
"I think the Olympics was a huge boost to his confidence, because it was the first time that he beat the No.1 and No.2 in a major," said Gilbert, who has been working with Sam Querrey during 2012. "He had done it in Masters Series but never in a major. I think that was a huge piece for him, and especially, having lost three times to Roger in best-of-five finals, to do it the way he did; I actually thought that would lead him to have a pretty big summer.
"I'm sure he made the right call in pulling out of Canada and not stressing. He said he had some sort of knee injury that he had never had before. I was surprised he lost early in Cincinnati but I see that Ivan Lendl is already there with him in New York and I'm sure that he'll be able to put all of this behind him and just work his way in the tournament.
"The way he was playing at the Olympics, if he can sustain that level for 21 sets, I have no doubt that he can win a major. It wasn't just playing the last two matches and beating Djokovic and Federer in straight sets, but the way he did it: by going through guys and not waiting for guys to make mistakes.
"I'm sure that's what Ivan is looking for him to do more of: be more proactive on the court. If he won, it certainly wouldn't surprise me. I feel like the tournament is about three deep to win it, maybe four if you want to include Delpo, but that's about it."
The absence of Rafael Nadal deprives the tournament of some box office, but the Spaniard hasn't won a tournament on a surface other than clay since 2010. In any case, suddenly it is Federer who appears the biggest threat. His dismantling of Djokovic in the final at Cincinnati was as clear an illustration as any that the Swiss man's Indian summer shows little sign of abating.
"I think he's the youngest 31-year-old ever and I think he can take a lot of stock in what Andre did about six or seven years ago: seeing somebody that he can remember who played great until he was 35," said Gilbert. "He's younger at 31 than Nadal at 26. He takes amazing care of his body and he never gets injured; he hasn't missed a major in years and has hardly had any injuries. His team does a great job of keeping him ready and he paces himself on the schedule. He doesn't overplay and seems to know when to take breaks.
"I'm a little bit surprised that he has made this push again, but it's not like baseball, where he went from a .370 to .220 percentage. He had only dropped off to No.3, against two guys [Nadal and Djokovic] who were maybe the best top three of all time, and he just turned around a couple of matches that he had lost. I remember the last two [US] Opens: he lost matches where he had match points. He's been right there, so it's not like he fell very far."
The Olympics is the backdrop to this US Open but it is also its biggest variable. If Murray – or Del Potro – wins it would be the first year since 2003 when the four majors have been won by four different men, and the presence of the Olympics on the schedule has deprived the top players of rest and transition time and made 2011 a gruelling, attritional year.
"Most of the top guys, after Wimbledon, rest for about a month to get ready to play on hard court in Canada," said Gilbert. "It's a really tough transition going from grass to hard court with no time. So maybe, for the guys that played at the end of the Olympics, you might say it's a little bit of an equaliser potentially; for the guys that didn't play in it, maybe somebody might have an off day or they are tired from the grind of this whole summer."
Murray has suffered at Flushing Meadows in the past, most notably when going down to Marin Cilic and Stanislas Wawrinka. But this is a different Murray. After the Olympics, it no longer requires a leap of faith to visualise him on the winner's rostrum.
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