Andy Murray and the search for consistent greatness

Andy Murray's approach to his craft is supremely rational, his belief in sports science unquestioned. Ivan Lendl, Murray's coach, is a meticulous crosser of t's and dotter of i's. The team that Murray has assembled leaves no stone unturned in its effort to keep Murray running, mentally as well as physically, like an exquisitely tuned race car.

So why do Murray's wheels keep falling off at unexpected times?

It's a fascinating quirk in a player who undeniably has greatness stitched into his muscle fibers. Murray is an elite, but he's still capable of shocking us with a spectacular, unexpected collapse. It's a seismic event, like the demolition of a giant old stadium by dynamite -- only nobody told the neighbors it was going to happen. The latest failure occurred in New York and just days ago in Glasgow, Scotland.

Murray was on fire and on point all summer. He had gone 42-4 up to his quarterfinal meeting with Kei Nishikori at the US Open on Sept. 7, with four titles (including a major at Wimbledon and the Olympic gold medal).

At the same time, US Open defending champion Novak Djokovic was struggling with his game as well as unspecified personal issues. The tea leaves all pointed to Murray making a sensational breakthrough, perhaps even shattering Djokovic's long stranglehold on the men's game.

But Nishikori took Murray out in Flushing Meadows in five sets. Then, not quite two weeks later in Murray's native Scotland, Juan Martin del Potro added insult to injury. He avenged his gold-medal-round loss to Murray in Rio de Janeiro with a five-hour, five-set Davis Cup win that paved the way for Argentina's advance to the final.

Of course, Murray is still ranked No. 2 and his position among the elites is secure. It has been since long before Roger Federer's left knee buckled or Rafael Nadal's warrior spirit turned pacifist. Murray's haul of a dozen Masters 1000 titles and his basic Grand Slam consistency justify his inclusion. He occupies a weight class above that of US Open champ Stan Wawrinka, but note that the Swiss now has the same number of Grand Slam titles (three). Wawrinka is the first to advise others not to read too much into the Grand Slam title count.

"Yes, I have three Grand Slams," Wawrinka said after winning the US Open. "How many Masters 1000 have Murray? [The Big Four] have been there since 10 years. They have not only been winning, but being in semifinal, final every time. That's why I'm not there."

All true. But had Murray found a way past Nishikori, Wawrinka might not be having to plead his unworthiness. Also, pundits might be talking about a true horse race for the No. 1 spot in 2017, between Murray and Djokovic.

Instead, Wawrinka has inserted himself into the conversation as the best big-match player. At the same time, a lot of the air went out of the Murray balloon. Did he win Wimbledon and Olympic singles gold because he was able to navigate around Djokovic? Some will say so. The one reality is that when it seemed a showdown was imminent in New York, it was Murray who failed to show up.

The intriguing thing isn't that Murray lost to Nishikori, the 2014 finalist, but how he went down. Murray was up a set and a break, and seemed to be in control after he put down a Nishikori insurrection and won the third set. But Murray became upset when chair umpire Maria Cicak halted play midpoint at 1-1, 30-40 in the fourth set after a gong-like sound was heard inside the stadium. It all slid away from there.

Afterward, Murray downplayed the role of the distraction and his subsequent tiff with officials in his news conference. Instead, he turned philosopher: "I could have won the match for sure. But, you know, I have also won some over the last few months that I should have lost."

Murray wasn't about to flagellate himself after his critical loss to del Potro less than two weeks later.

"I did great today," Murray said. "I'm very proud of how I played. I thought I did fantastic. I fought for every point, tried as best as I could. That's all you can do."

Well, almost. Murray still needs to look for a way to tighten the lug nuts on his wheels for one or two more critical occasions during a career run.