Murray missing aggression from game

Andy Murray, the strapping 22-year-old Scot, has it all.

He has the big groundstrokes, from both sides. He serves well and is one of the game's best returners. After some serious conditioning in the offseason, he moves with an aesthetically pleasing fluidity. His defense is, at times, breathtaking. He can volley and carve a drop shot. He is exceedingly intelligent and builds points with a fine, schematic sense of purpose.

This past week, Murray passed Rafael Nadal for the No. 2 spot in the world rankings, and he, along with Novak Djokovic, leads the ATP World Tour with 53 match wins. His five titles in 2009 tie him with Nadal for the ATP's best total. His hard-court record of 34-3 (.919) is unmatched. Murray's 10 titles over 2008-09 are surpassed only by Nadal's 13.

But even as he has steadily lifted his game and his place in the world, there has been something missing from Murray's game. In a word: aggression. If you saw him lose to Andy Roddick in that taut, four-set semifinal match at Wimbledon, you know that when facing a top opponent Murray has a maddening tendency to go passive, to play the ball to the middle of the court.

Last week in Cincinnati, you could see the double-edged sword in his last two matches. Down a set and 0-2 to Julien Benneteau, Murray won a 53-stroke rally when the Frenchman missed an overhead. Murray's defense and patience eventually carried him into the semifinals. But there, against Federer, he reverted to passive form. Federer, who had lost four straight matches to Murray, changed his tactics and surprised Murray with his aggressiveness. Federer won in straight sets.

Paul Annacone is the head coach of men's tennis for the Lawn Tennis Association, Great Britain's version of the USTA. Annacone, who has watched intently as Murray has flowered and surpassed the exploits of Tim Henman and all the other modern-day Brits, thinks Murray might be the best counterpuncher he's ever seen. But …

"Because he's so good at it, and an extreme perfectionist, he struggles to be offensive at times," Annacone said recently. "He feels like he can absorb everything, keep the ball in play until the other guy misses -- or he gets a short ball.

"Against the best players, it can be a problem because, really, he doesn't want to miss and they'll go for it."

Murray, probably the best player on the men's side to never win a Grand Slam singles title, is one of the favorites heading into the U.S. Open, which begins Monday. He reached the New York final last year, losing to Federer. Regardless of his loss to Federer in Cincinnati, Murray, based on his hard-court results, could be construed as the leading man at the National Tennis Center.

"Look at the guy's improvement the last couple of years," said ESPN analyst Pam Shriver. "He was in the final of a major last year, No. 2 in the world; look at his age. Before we get into 'He needs to do this and that to win a major' -- listen, he could win his first major in a couple of weeks' time. I'd go to the bank, saying he'll win one in 2010.

"He's still learning how to put his massive repertoire together. He's got a lot of tools. In time, he'll sort it out."

Last week Federer, looking for a record sixth consecutive U.S. Open victory -- no man in the Open era has ever won the same event six times in a row -- downplayed Murray's role as favorite.

"If you look at last week's draw [in Montreal], so many guys are very equal," Federer said. "I think there are many guys who are beating each other right now, so it's quite an interesting dynamic."

Some players, however, are beating their peers more often than others. Murray has won six of nine career matches against Federer and is also 6-3 versus Roddick. Although Nadal won the first five matches between them, Murray has taken two of the past four. Similarly, Novak Djokovic won the first four meetings and is 0-3 since.

"I think [Murray] announced himself when he won here last year," Federer said in Cincinnati. "From then on, he had an unbelievable run, especially on the hard courts. He's almost won everything there is to win."

Almost, but not quite. While Federer is aiming for his 16th major title, Murray is still looking for his first. He is, relatively speaking, late to the major party. Nadal had just turned 19 when he won the 2005 French Open, and Djokovic was only 20 when he won the 2008 Australian Open. Federer and Roddick broke through at the age of 21.

Larry Stefanki, who coaches Roddick, thought Murray's passivity during that semifinal at Wimbledon turned the match.

"He is stuck playing defensive tennis only," Stefanki said afterward. "That was the big difference. He needs to recognize when to play offense. I don't think he sees it while he is playing right now and that's the next step for him.

"He is going to have a great future if he gets to the point of recognizing balls to attack and to come into the forecourt and plays there rather than 15 feet behind the baseline. He will win a lot of Slams; he is that good a mover."

Annacone, Pete Sampras' longtime coach, agrees.

"He must balance things and be really offensive at times in the big matches," Annacone said. "If you've watched all of the Grand Slam finals of recent years, in 90 percent of those finals, the guy who was the winner was more offense.

"It's tough when you win 95 percent of your matches, but Andy has to be more comfortable in letting those talents flow, and not worry about missing."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.