Commentary

Flat Murray couldn't do anything right

Updated: September 8, 2009, 11:05 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- The International Tennis Federation provides voluminous statistical information on upcoming men's matches at the U.S. Open. On Tuesday, for example, there were two compelling reasons to think that Andy Murray was going to best Marin Cilic in their fourth-round match:

1. The No. 2-ranked Murray had the best record among men on hard courts, a searing 37-3 (.925). In seven of the previous eight years, that hard-court leader had reached the quarterfinals.

2. Cilic, who had never been to a Grand Slam singles quarterfinal, had never beaten a player ranked in the top three.

History is a wonderfully instructive thing, but it doesn't always predict the future. It doesn't account for variables such as heart or guts (or lack of the same) or shifts in the wind. On Tuesday, a 20-year-old from Zagreb, Croatia, announced himself in a major way.

Cilic took down Murray, a finalist here last year and the man seen as most likely to unseat five-time defending champion Roger Federer. It looked shockingly easy; the 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 match was over in 2 hours, 8 minutes.

What happened?

"I don't know," Murray said, sounding genuinely baffled. "That's why I'm disappointed. I didn't find a way to get myself into the match."

Murray said it was his most disappointing loss -- ever.

"In my tennis career?" he asked. "Yeah."

Even with the heroics of 17-year-old American Melanie Oudin, who has knocked out three high-profile Russians, this rates as the co-upset of the tournament, right alongside John Isner's defeat of Andy Roddick.

For several years, the 6-foot-6, spidery-thin Cilic has been seen as a future Grand Slam champion. As he pointed out in his on-the-court interview, this was the fifth time he had advanced to the round of 16.

"I'm really happy about that," Cilic said, "now that I took that extra step."

Murray had two set points in the first frame but couldn't close the deal. Cilic broke him at 5-all and served out the set.

Although Cilic served well and his groundstrokes typically were big, this match was more about Murray. He never seemed quite into it. He was listless and tentative, and he never seemed to find a reason to fight.

After he dropped the first set, British reporters were canvassing the press room, wondering what was wrong with him. Down 5-6 in the first set, Murray rubbed his left (off) wrist repeatedly during the changeover.

Afterward, Murray admitted that his wrist had been bothering him for a week or so, but he stoically declined to blame the injury for his loss.

"I just struggled," Murray said. "I played poorly. Obviously, I'm very disappointed. Regardless of my wrist, I lost the match. I returned poorly. He served well, and that was really the difference.

"Today I could have been better in every part of the game -- mental, or serve, forehand, backhand returns. Today was not good."

Murray managed to work Cilic for seven break-point opportunities, but Cilic held firm each and every time. Murray had only 13 winners, leavened by 29 unforced errors.

Cilic escaped with the first set when Murray hit a weak sliced backhand into the net. From there, Cilic disappeared. Murray said that for the last set and a half, Cilic hit the ball cleaner than he'd ever seen.

[+] EnlargeMarlin Cilic
Michael Heiman/Getty ImagesMarin Cilic advanced to the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam for the first time.

Brad Gilbert coached Murray from July 2006 through the end of the 2007 season and was the analyst for the match on ESPN2.

"Obviously, the tendency in these matches is for Cilic to keep pressing," Gilbert said. "In the matches they've played, including once when I was his coach, he kept trying to force the issue at net, and Andy would find a creative way to win the points. Tactically, I thought Cilic played a great match.

"I was a little surprised [Murray] wasn't able to adjust. Every once in a while as a tennis player you have one of those flat days. You kept expecting Andy to take over."

Cilic has won only a single ATP World Tour-level title, a year ago in New Haven. He has steadily worked his way up the rankings ladder and is presently sitting at No. 16. He is cut from the same cloth as fellow Croatians Goran Ivanisevic and Ivan Ljubicic.

No one could be happier about the developments here at the National Tennis Center than Federer. First, No. 3 seed Rafael Nadal has been slowed by an abdominal muscle pull, and now No. 2 Murray is out of the event.

In 2005, Cilic finished as the No. 2 junior in the world behind Donald Young of the United States.

Sometimes, history does repeat itself.

That same year, Cilic beat a boy two years his senior in straight sets at Roland Garros. It was the last match of Murray's junior career.

Four years later, Young is scuffling to make the main draws of medium-sized events. On Tuesday, Cilic made his dramatic breakthrough.

"I feel bad for Andy," Gilbert said. "He won't get to play another major until the middle of January. He gets an 'A' for the ATP [season], but he went 0-for-finals in a major. Those are what you're judged on."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.