Another year, another disappointment for Andy Murray. The US Open has long been touted as the British No.1's most realistic option for Grand Slam glory. Indeed, 12 months after waltzing to a Flushing Meadows final with Roger Federer, Murray had barely broken a sweat en route to his fourth-round match against big-serving Croatian Marin Cilic.
A brutal demolition of American Taylor Dent had reinforced the world No 2's credentials on the New York hardcourt. In that match, much was made of Murray's prodigious return of serve, but the Scot's often match-winning retort faltered inexplicably against Cilic - who held serve throughout. "Normally, the return is the one part of my game where, even if the rest of my game is struggling, I find ways to break serve and get into points - I didn't do that," said a dejected Murray after the defeat.
A derisory showing means Murray must wait another year, at least, to repeat Fred Perry's US Open winning exploits of 1936. But it was not the ghost of Perry, the last Briton to win the tournament, who plagued Murray in the Arthur Ashe Stadium, it was poor shots at vital moments and a superior, confident opponent. Cilic's display in the pair's fourth-round match offered far more than a booming serve. His powerful forehand was a constant threat, he smashed 35 winners against Murray's 13 and, in truth, his classy, composed 7-5 6-2 6-2 victory was - following a tight opening set where Murray had two set points - never in doubt.
The one-sided loss ends Murray's hopes of a first Grand Slam title and ensures a prompt return to the No 3 ranking slot after this Flushing Meadows fortnight. Murray's post-game synopsis that this defeat was "the most disappointing match of my life" seemed entirely fitting. Not because of the defeat itself, but its manner. Error-strewn with countless unforced errors, Murray may well have been absent after the first 12 games. The wrist injury the Scots been carrying for weeks did not seem to hinder his game against the 16th seed and he refused to use it as an excuse for his meagre surrender.
"Regardless of my wrist, I lost the match," said Murray. "I returned poorly. He served well and that was really the difference." No moment was more telling than when Murray failed to convert two break - and set - points when up 5-4 in the first. Cilic aced away the first, before Murray netted a weak backhand to gift his opponent deuce. Cilic held, then won the next six games as the second seed collapsed.
"I just couldn't get myself into enough return games to get back into the match," Murray added. "He was dominating points, so there wasn't much I could do. I played badly and didn't deserve to win. "I started the match well but when I lost the first set and went behind, I started making a lot of silly mistakes." Cilic had not beaten Murray in three previous meetings, and despite the 20-year-old Croat's superior display, he acknowledged he had caught Murray unusually below par.
"I played really good, very consistent, didn't let anything bother me and and he was missing a lot - I don't think he was playing his best," he said. The 6ft 6ins Croat will now play Juan Martin Del Potro in today's quarter-finals. The Argentine, who powered down 22 aces as he defeated No 24 seed Juan Carlos Ferrero in straight sets, expressed his surprise at Cilic's win. "If he beat Murray he's confident and it will be a very tough one for me - he has very good weapons," he said.