The earliest real signs of trouble for Andy Murray came in the 10th game of his U.S. Open quarterfinal. For 22 points stretched over 15 excruciating minutes Thursday, Murray's body language was as poor as his play.
When the 2012 champion pushed a simple forehand into the net, he smacked his palm against his forehead, once, twice, three times. When he left a similarly routine forehand too low, he mocked his footwork by pressing one shoe atop the other. When he sailed a later forehand long, he rolled his eyes and muttered. When he delivered his second double-fault, he swiped the ground with his racket.
And when he rushed yet another forehand on break point No. 6 of that key game — the ball drifting long to cede a set to his far-less-accomplished opponent, ninth-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka — Murray cracked his racket on the court. Not satisfied, he trudged to his changeover chair and whacked the racket again, mangling the frame.
Trying to defend a Grand Slam title for the first time, and not quite two months removed from his historic Wimbledon championship, a drained Murray bowed out quickly, if not quietly, at Flushing Meadows, losing 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 to Wawrinka in a result that was surprising both because of who won and by how much.
"I have had a good run the last couple of years," said the third-seeded Murray, who shook his hands in front of his face and screamed after dropping the second set. "It's a shame I had to play a bad match today."
The first Grand Slam semifinal of Wawrinka's career, in his 35th appearance, will come Saturday against No. 1 Novak Djokovic, the 2011 U.S. Open champion. Djokovic overcame a third-set lull and beat 21st-seeded Mikhail Youzhny of Russia 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-0 on Thursday night to reach the semifinals in New York for the seventh year in a row. It's also the 14th consecutive Grand Slam tournament where Djokovic is in the semifinals, a 3½-year streak.
"Level of confidence is right at the top, very close, because I have been playing most of my matches here very aggressive, very dominantly," Djokovic said. "I have been very satisfied with my performances overall in the whole tournament so far. And even tonight, even though I dropped a set, I feel I was in control."
The other semifinal is No. 2 Rafael Nadal against No. 8 Richard Gasquet.
Murray's rough afternoon included only 15 winners, 30 fewer than Wawrinka. Murray tapped in second serves as slow as 75 mph, allowing Wawrinka to hit four return winners and easily take control of countless other points. Murray, one of the sport's top returners, never earned a single break point during any of Wawrinka's 14 service games.
"I didn't get into enough return games, which is disappointing for me," said Murray, who had won 30 of his preceding 32 Grand Slam matches. "That's normally something I do pretty well. I always give myself opportunities to break serve, and I didn't today."
Give Wawrinka credit — something Murray made sure to do.
At age 28, Wawrinka finally made it further at a major tournament than his Swiss Olympic teammate and good friend, Roger Federer, who lost in the fourth round and sent a congratulatory text to Wawrinka after his breakthrough victory.
"Today, for sure, it's my moment," Wawrinka said.
He did it with his fluid, one-handed backhand, and by taking full advantage of Murray's mistakes, but also by playing an aggressive, attacking style. Wawrinka won 9 of 10 points when he serve-and-volleyed. He rushed the net in general, taking 31 of 42 points when he moved forward. Most of all, he never allowed the occasion or the opportunity to overwhelm him in 23,000-capacity Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Asked what part of his performance made him the most proud, Wawrinka said: "How I was dealing with the pressure. Normally, I can be a little bit nervous and I can lose (a) few games because of that."
He's 2-12 in tour matches against Djokovic, with 11 consecutive losses. In their most recent meeting, on hard courts at January's Australian Open, Djokovic edged Wawrinka 12-10 in a fifth set en route to the championship.
"Definitely one of the most exciting matches I have played in my life on this surface," Djokovic said.
He blamed himself for playing too passively during the third set against Youzhny, when Djokovic got broken twice and made 16 unforced errors. A six-time major champion, Djokovic has looked solid all tournament. Djokovic lost to Murray in the 2012 final at Flushing Meadows, then again in this July's final at the All England Club, and that duo appeared on course for a rematch in the semifinals this weekend, but Wawrinka put an end to that possibility.
It's been quite a 14-month stretch for Murray.
He lost to Federer in the Wimbledon final last year, then returned to Centre Court four weeks later and beat the 17-time major champion to earn a gold medal for Britain at the London Olympics. After starting his career 0-4 in Grand Slam finals — his current coach, Ivan Lendl, is the only other man to do that — Murray finally won one in New York a year ago. And then, after a runner-up finish to Djokovic at the Australian Open in January, Murray became the first British man in 77 years to win Wimbledon.
That raised talk of knighthood at home and questions about whether he'd prefer to reach No. 1 in the rankings or add more major titles. It might all have been too much to handle.
Before this U.S. Open began, Murray seemed amazed by how many off-court commitments a defending champion needs to deal with at Grand Slam time. Then, thanks to the vagaries of scheduling and weather, he didn't play his first match until the third night of the tournament. He hardly looked at ease during a four-set, fourth-round win against a guy ranked 65th.
Didn't get better against Wawrinka.
"It was a new experience for me and something that was good to go through," Murray said, "and I will learn from that for next time."
The unraveling began with Murray serving while behind 5-4 in the first set.
"Important game," Murray said.
Troubled, perhaps, by swirling wind, not to mention Wawrinka, Murray kept missing the mark, especially with his forehand. Never a paragon of positive reinforcement during a match, he kept gesticulating and yelling and generally looking ill at ease.
The second set slipped away even faster, with Murray hanging his head after a forehand into the net closed a 12-point and three-game run for Wawrinka that made it 5-2. That was pretty much that.
"If I'm meant to win every Grand Slam I play or be in the final, it's just very, very difficult just now," said Murray, who packed up his gear and raced into his news conference so swiftly that Wawrinka was still conducting his on-court interview. "With the guys around us, it's very challenging."
For about a decade, men named Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray have dominated the latter stages of major tournaments. That quartet won 33 of the past 34 Grand Slam titles, but two are gone from the field already.
"In tennis, as you know, if (you) are not Roger or Rafa and Djokovic or Andy now, you don't win so many tournaments," Wawrinka said, "and you always lose."
Not on this day.
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