Andy Murray eyes Major success at Australian Open
The Scot is upbeat about going one step further than last year, but may end up facing Federer again to do it
Andy Murray is about to open his campaign for the first tennis Major of the year in rain-battered Victoria, Australia, and is sounding pretty relaxed about his chances.
With warm-up matches at the Hopman Cup behind him and plenty of court time in Melbourne with off-court chum, Novak Djokovic, Murray seems to be having plenty of fun too: a side to the Scot too infrequently seen in the press.
Although his exho against Marin Cilic at the Kooyong Classic last week was rained off, he remains confident of going one better than his final placement last year: “I think there’s a good chance that I can win the event.”
After achieving his best-ever performance in Melbourne last year, falling at the last hurdle to Roger Federer, Murray enjoyed a resurgence on the outdoor hard courts during the latter part of 2010, winning Masters titles in Toronto and Shanghai and taking the scalp of Federer in both. He also reached the semis of the World Tour Finals -and very nearly also reached the finals after a high-quality match against Nadal.
However, Murray has said little of the draw that faces him this year, and many think with good reason. It is a curate’s egg -good in parts -and that is reflected in the media reaction.
Take these views of the Fanhouse UK website: “In truth, the Scot could barely have wished for a better draw.”
Then look at Scotland’s Daily Record: “Tough draw for Andy Murray as Robin Soderling and Rafael Nadal lie in wait en route to final.”
So were the tennis gods kind or harsh to Murray when they made the draw for the Australian Open?
As the No5 seed, he was in danger of meeting one of the top three -and the most dangerous -players in the quarter-finals: Nadal, Federer or Djokovic. He will count himself lucky that he cannot face any of them until the semis.
Instead, he has the new world No4, Soderling, who only sits above him because Murray opted to play the Hopman Cup rather than a point-scoring ATP event ahead of Melbourne. He won all three matches there with ease.
Murray also has a decent run in the early stages of his draw. He can reach the third round without meeting anyone inside the top 70 and would then play the lowest seed in the draw, No32 Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.
The Spaniard had some useful wins last autumn, beating Nadal in Bangkok and Tomas Berdych in Shanghai, so he poses a challenge, but not a huge one. The next step though, is full of intrigue.
Marcos Baghdatis has been on a fitness programme, has lost weight and is up for a fight. Still only 25, he was a finalist back in 2006, has a huge following in Australia and has the kind of all-round game to knock the rhythm out of an opponent. He did pick up a groin strain before Sydney but, if he’s fit, he will be a dangerous sleeper.
That’s always supposing he gets past the real unknown in the draw, Juan Martin Del Potro, playing in his first Major since injury forced him off the tour this time last year.
The Argentine played a long match to beat Feliciano Lopez in Sydney last week but ran out of steam in the next round. And that could be his downfall so early in his comeback season.
Should neither Del Potro nor Baghdatis make it through, there is still Jurgen Melzer to contend with -and this seems the most likely scenario. Murray has beaten him in all four of their meetings, but they haven’t played since Melzer discovered some late-flowering form in 2010.
The Austrian has also just beaten Nikolay Davydenko and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Kooyong, so he could be a real test. But it’s the top section of Murray’s quarter that looks a fright.
As if Soderling, usurper of his No4 ranking, was not enough, there are Ernests Gulbis -a man who seems constantly poised to fulfil his huge talent -and Tsonga -a man who has many times all but fulfilled his talent only to fall foul of injury. Now he seems fit and he had a good warm-up in Doha. He could be dangerous.
Whoever Murray’s opponent is in the quarter-finals will be a strong contender who has proved his worth simply by reaching deep into the draw. And if it’s Soderling versus Murray, it could be cracker. Both men have been working hard over the off-season and there is the added tension of their places in the rankings.
They stand 3-2 in their head-to-head, but Murray, with the greater variety in his game, should have the edge for a semi-final place.
There, Murray seems set to meet Nadal. The two men have played 13 times since their first match in Melbourne four years ago, and this could be their sixth Major encounter, their third in the Australian.
While Nadal holds the advantage in their overall head to head, Murray has beaten him in their last two hard-court Majors. Remember, too, how close their last meeting at the WTFs in London turned out to be.
Theirs is turning into a fine rivalry, and a Melbourne semi would give Nadal the chance to turn the tables on his sad exit with injury in the quarters last year.
Even if Nadal starts rusty, he has a decent enough draw to work himself into fighting form and find his rhythm. The first round offers up veteran Brazilian Marcos Daniel, whom Nadal has dismissed in short order twice. Next will be a qualifier Ryan Sweeting -who hasn’t won a main draw match since Washington last year -or fellow Spaniard Daniel Gimeno-Traver, 58th in the world and with a couple of useful scalps last year.
The top man’s first potential seed is Lopez, one of the least challenging seeds in the draw if his recent form is anything to go by. He lost in the first round of his last four tournaments in 2010 and made a second round exit in Brisbane last week.
Beyond that lie John Isner -Nadal leads 2-0 -Radek Stepanek -some way off complete fitness, though a good player on the hard courts -or Cilic. The Croatian hasn’t won more than one match in a tournament since the first week in August 2010. This year started just as badly when, as title-holder, he went out in the first round of Chennai.
Even Nadal’s potential quarter-final match is scheduled to be against possibly the most benign of the top eight seeds, David Ferrer.
The contrasting draws of Murray and Nadal could make all the difference in the semifinals. If Murray has to beat Soderling in his quarter while Nadal faces Ferrer, the Scot may be the less fresh. But all other things being equal, Murray on the hard and hot Melbourne courts has a decent record and a decent chance against Nadal.
His reward, should he win, is likely to be one of the top dogs from the lower half of the draw, Federer or Djokovic, and both are riding a wave of good form and confidence.
Djokovic has reached three finals and two semifinals in his last six ATP events -and led Serbia to Davis Cup victory in December. Federer beat all four of the other top men in the WTFs and has won 26 of his 28 matches since the US Open. He’s also set his sights on regaining the No1 ranking.
Could the final therefore be a repeat of Murray’s two previous Major finals, which were both against Federer? Or might he end up playing his mate and practice partner Djokovic, whose only Major came in this very event in 2008? Either way, it is a fascinating prospect.