In 2008, the Buffalo Bills, who haven't reached the NFL playoffs since 1999, won their first four games and five of their opening six. Like many fellow upstate New Yorkers, my thoughts went beyond making the postseason; I daydreamed how it would feel on Chippewa Street, Labatt Blue in one hand and beef on weck in the other, in the hours following Buffalo's long-awaited Super Bowl victory.
The Bills proceeded to lose eight of their final 10 games to miss the playoffs, leaving their die-hard fans blue and embarrassed. I got way too far ahead of myself, and as a result, I am taking the current Bills season one game at a time (Buffalo is off to a 4-1 start). It's advice the justifiably excited fan bases of Andy Murray and Agnieszka Radwanska should also consider.
Both players won back-to-back tournaments in Asia during the past two weeks -- Radwanska survived two strong fields in Tokyo and Beijing; Murray claimed his second straight title by defeating longtime conqueror Rafael Nadal. But this is not the first time Murray has tantalized us in the fall only to fall flat in the subsequent season's Slams (against Nadal, usually). For Radwanska, now back at her career-high ranking of No. 8, this is somewhat uncharted territory, which in my mind is even more reason for buyers to beware. Playing in the Far East, Murray and Radwanska may be close to Melbourne in proximity, but the Australian Open is a ways away on the calendar. The new year has a way of signaling a fresh start, both for those who ruled autumn and those who thought little of it (looking at you, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams).
We've seen similar surges before -- and the disappointments that followed -- and not just from the Slam-less Scot. David Nalbandian won the Madrid and Paris Masters events in late 2007 (beating Federer and Nadal in the finals, respectively), yet lost in the second round of the 2008 Australian Open, when the spotlight was most intense. Two years later, Nikolay Davydenko was all but the favorite Down Under, having won Shanghai and the ATP World Tour Finals to close 2009. He lost in Oz to Federer, who reached all four Grand Slam finals the previous year, something people seemed to forget.
As for the women, Caroline Wozniacki and Dinara Safina are fine examples of players who have been able to win everywhere but the majors. Radwanska is far less accomplished than the current and former No. 1, never having been past the quarterfinal of a Slam. After her latest title, Radwanska said she'll be focusing more on the Slams -- the four tournaments where you know you're getting the best effort from the best players. Not in Cincinnati (where Djokovic took a loss to Murray this year by retiring), not in Indian Wells (a tournament some top players grudgingly travel to), and certainly not in the fall, sometimes affectionately referred to as "appearance-fee season."
This isn't to say that Murray and Radwanska can't bridge post-U.S. Open success into major titles. Indeed, Marat Safin won Madrid and Paris in 2004, then took his prize-winning act to Melbourne, where he claimed his second major. But Safin already had tasted Slam success years earlier at the U.S. Open and reached No. 1. There is no doubt that Murray and Radwanska are headed in the right direction, but the path veers sharply at the Slams, and both players have proved they can't stay on course through seven rounds. We should temper our expectations accordingly. Should Murray add a Masters title or even the World Tour Finals to his fall haul, it would only strengthen his case as a contender in Melbourne. But even if he went unbeaten for the rest of the season, he shouldn't be called the favorite.
Personally, I don't think Radwanska's game is durable enough to win a major, but I'd be shocked if Murray ended his career with the same number of Slams as Tim Henman. Still, like many fellow Buffalo fans say about their Bills, I'll believe it when I see it.