Andy Murray no longer an also-ran

NEW YORK -- Andy Murray can appear so hacked off so often when he's on a tennis court, it's easy to assume that tortured is just his natural set point. His eyebrows jam down. His neck muscles tighten. He once ended a particularly profane on-court rant by screaming "My legs feel like JELLY!" so loudly that TV cameras picked it up and #jelly started trending on Twitter almost immediately. But Murray also comes back to the US Open about to put a bow on the best 12 months of his career, and so it still comes as a bit of a surprise that now all's on the way to ending well, he remains brutally honest about how he wasn't just fighting the Federers or Nadals of the tour before he won the title here last year.

Murray admits he'd started to think the same thing about himself that other folks had begun whispering behind his back as his losses in Grand Slam finals ticked up to three, then four, without an offsetting victory.

"I felt a bit like a loser," the 26-year-old Murray admitted a couple weeks ago, as he looked ahead to returning to New York and making his first career Grand Slam title defense, beginning Wednesday night against Frenchman Michael Llodra in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

The "loser" label wasn't true, no matter how much Murray himself believed it. He'd already had 24 of his current 28 tour titles by the time he rolled into the Open last year. He'd also just won an Olympic gold medal during the London Games to slay some ghosts on the same Wimbledon Centre Court where, just a few weeks earlier, he'd croaked out a tearful postmatch observation that "I'm getting closer" after losing a Slam final again -- this time to Roger Federer. And Murray's willingness to show his heartbreak made him a rooting favorite for a whole new group of fans.

Murray doesn't hide the fact that had he retired without a Grand Slam title like Tim Henman, the top British player just before him, it might have haunted him. That epiphany came to Murray when he was waiting to take the court for last year's Open final against Novak Djokovic. Murray says he felt more prematch fear than he'd ever felt in his life -- "the worst I'd ever been, worse than the [2012] Wimbledon final against Roger," Murray said.

He somehow held off Djokovic in a scintillating five-set match that stretched 4 hours, 54 minutes.

But having the wherewithal to close out Djokovic again at Wimbledon this year raised the bar on what pressure on a tennis court feels like in Murray's mind yet again.

Remember, a British man hadn't won the championship in 77 years. Cynicism and impatience were again running high. Murray sprinted out to a two-sets-to-love lead against Djokovic, then rallied from a 2-4 deficit in the third set. But the last game in his 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 win was a fight-to-the-death struggle. Djokovic seemed out on his feet numerous times -- then he'd rip off a winner. Murray had a chance to serve out the match. Then he'd falter. Reboot. Try to win it again. Djokovic dragged him through three deuces in the final game. The crowd was shrieking now. And the fears Murray might falter -- again? -- came roaring back.

Except he didn't.

And the Wimbledon experience left him a changed again, same as his 2012 Open title did.

"The first few days, I just had to kind of keep reminding myself that that actually happened," Murray said. "Everything that went on after was quite surreal. The end mentally, that last game, will be the toughest game I'll play in my career, ever."

He also agrees it has been liberating, even life-changing.

Back in Britain this summer, there has been talk about knighthood for Murray and questions about whether he'll finally get around to marrying his longtime girlfriend, Kim Sears. He's got his own celebrity fan posse now that includes London-based actor Kevin Spacey (who has said he'll return to New York to see Murray play again this year) and Sean Connery, who is Scottish born, same as Murray. The Wimbledon victory brought Murray a commendation from Queen Elizabeth II and an invite to 10 Downing Street, where he hit tennis balls with Prime Minister David Cameron in the State Dining Room.

Great, right?

Murray later admitted he was "scared" of hitting the chandeliers.

Which proves he hasn't undergone a total personality shift.

Murray says that coach Ivan Lendl's greatest value to him since he hired the eight-time Grand Slam winner at the start of last year has been having a former player to talk to who had been through both abject disappointment on tour, same as Murray has, and yet also knew what it took to win Grand Slams. Psychologically, Murray says, it helped.

Though Murray has consistently insisted Lendl hasn't tweaked his on-court game or technique much, opponents disagree. They see a player who now feels more confident taking risks, even on the biggest points; a man who closes out opponents more efficiently now; a man who used to sometimes retreat into a defensive shell in tense moments in a match, and got past that too.

Now opponents have even started to say that Murray has become -- would you believe -- clutch?

And now look: Though he had only a so-so 3-2 record in his two stops on the U.S. hardcourt circuit since winning Wimbledon, Murray was sure enough about himself and his game to take this past Sunday off -- this though it was the day before the Open started. This though he knows that Rafael Nadal has been even hotter than him this calendar year, winning nine of the 12 tournaments he has entered, including the French Open.

Murray has even gotten the point where he's amused now when some wisecracker at a tournament inevitably shouts, "C'MON, TIM!" -- a needling throwback to how British fans used to pleadingly yell encouragement at Henman all those years his nerve-shredding Wimbledon runs fell agonizingly short again and again. All those "C'mon Tims" spilled in vain.

But Murray did break through.

He's an also-ran no more.

A year after worrying he'd leave Ashe with an unprecedented 0-for-5 skunking in Slam finals, he's back in New York saying he's "excited" about making his first-ever career Grand Slam title defense. He hasn't griped a bit about a tough draw that, as the No. 3 seed, could require him to beat Tomas Berdych, then Djokovic, then Nadal to repeat as Open champ. First, he has to get past Llodra Wednesday night.

"It's obviously going to be a different experience playing in a Grand Slam when you are defending champion," Murray says. "I've never been through that before … I'll be interested to see how I respond.

"[But either way] I'm not going to play under the same pressure that I've had to for the last five, six years. That's never going to happen again."