After an impressive turn at the Australian Open, the Scot has struggled to find his footing When Andy Murray finished a close second to Roger Federer in the Australian Open in January - the Briton losing what proved to be the decisive third set by a 13-11 tie-break margin - it seemed a question of how many titles he would add in 2010 to the 14 he had already accumulated. Strangely, Murray had to wait until the Toronto Masters two weeks ago for his first tournament victory in what has been an unsatisfactory year.
The timing and manner of that return to the winner's enclosure could not be better, however, as Murray resumes his quest to provide his success-starved nation with a first men's singles champion at a grand slam since 1936. Flushing Meadows, a collection of noisy arenas in the heart of New York, has always been considered the most likely venue for Murray to make that elusive breakthrough, despite his near miss in Melbourne seven months ago and his solid challenges to date on the home soil of Wimbledon.
The Scot knocked on the door in New York two years ago when he dealt impressively with the considerable obstacles put in his way, only to come up against Federer on the day of reckoning. To get to that first grand slam final, Murray had to account for Juan Martin Del Potro, who went on to win the title last year, in the quarter-finals and then conquer Rafael Nadal, the world No 1, in the semi-finals.
Del Potro, a powerful Argentine, is injured this year, to the advantage of all aspiring first-time champions. However, Nadal, who defeated Murray so emphatically on the way to regaining the Wimbledon title in July, is on the same collision course as he was two years ago. And so is Federer. Murray, in all likelihood will have to beat both of the men who have dominated the world scene, particularly the majors, for the last decade, to fulfil his ambition. He demonstrated in Toronto that he still has the capacity to do so, overcoming the pair without surrendering a set.
It is more than coincidence that Murray returned to peak form in his first big event since going back under the wing of his astute mother, Judy, who has partially filled the coaching void left by the dismissal of Miles Maclagan a month ago. Murray had clearly been in need of fresh ideas from his supporting cast. His mum, renowned for her ability to bring the best out of up-and-coming Scottish players, has evidently injected some fresh belief into her son.
Confidence should not be lacking in the Scottish camp over the next fortnight. But it remains a big ask for Murray, or anyone else in the 128-man draw, to break what is becoming an unhealthy duopoly by Nadal and Federer of the four titles that really matter. Federer has benefited from the lengthy, self- imposed lay-off after his early exit from Wimbledon at the hands of Tomas Berdych, the eventual runner-up, when he was suffering from an array of fitness problems - lung, back and arm.
The Swiss, who returned to action in Toronto, ended an uncharacteristic barren spell since his Australian Open triumph by winning the ensuing Cincinnati Masters and is benefiting from his new association with Paul Annacone, the former coach of Pete Sampras and Tim Henman. Nadal, who struggled through three rounds in Toronto before being eliminated by Murray, departed even earlier from Cincinnati where Marcos Baghdatis, the experienced Cypriot, had his measure. The Spaniard, out of sight at the head of the world rankings after regaining both his Roland Garros and Wimbledon crowns, is yet to win at Flushing Meadows. Dangerous though it is to discard him from the reckoning, the indications are that he is not quite back to the form he rose to on clay and grass.
If Murray fails to secure a semi-final date with the top-seed, then that honour is likely to go to Berdych, who is an obvious quarter-final threat. Federer is likely to be in familiar company at that last eight stage. Robin Soderling, the big-hitting Swede who, like Murray, has come up agonisingly short in two major finals, has tested Federer in four of the last six grand slams. Significantly, Soderling enjoyed his solitary success in 13 attempts the last time they met at Roland Garros in June and will by no means be overawed if they take their appointed places in the quarter-finals.
The projected semi-final opponent for the second-seeded Federer is Novak Djokovic, the Serb whose biggest career success to date came at Federer's expense at the same stage of the 2008 Australian Open which culminated in a final victory over Jo Wilfried Tsonga. Djokovic has not won a title since prevailing in Dubai in February and his New York warm-up plans were spoiled by Roddick in the quarter-finals at Cincinnati. Roddick, a US Open champion seven years ago, could roll back the years and steal that Federer date from the third- seeded Djokovic.