IT IS easy to spot the British contingent in Melbourne: they are the ones with the bruises up and down their arms having spent the first two weeks of the new season pinching themselves. Can Andy Murray really be playing so well? Can the Scot really be the favourite to win the Australian Open title? Can Britain really have a potential grand slam champion on its hands?
The answer to these and many more such questions appears to be "yes". Murray is the form horse going into the first major tournament of the year and when the rest of the players in the locker room are looking at him as the man to beat, then the Scot must be a real contender for the silverware.
Murray has already beaten Roger Federer twice this year and Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick once each. He has one title to his name already in 2009 and he is the only man in the world's top four not to have lost a match this year. But the more the expectation levels rise, the more relaxed Murray appears. His only concern is Andrei Pavel, his first-round opponent.
"I don't think there's much point in studying the draw," he said, "because you never know what's going to happen in any of the other matches. You just have to take care of each one at a time.
"It's not like I'm going to start talking tactics with Miles (Maclagan, his coach] now about my fourth-round match. I've obviously played Pavel once before. I think he had a bad injury last year and hasn't played too much, but I'll just try to take care of that one first."
Murray last played Pavel back in 2005, but it was a match that he has good cause to remember. Not only did he throw up quite spectacularly all over the court at the US Open during the long and hot afternoon, but he also managed to beat the Romanian in five arduous sets. That win proved to be the launch pad for the next stage of his career as the Scot reached his first tour final a matter of weeks later.
"It was a long time ago – three and a bit years – but I obviously have good memories from that match," Murray said. "At that stage of my career it was one of the best atmospheres I had played in. And obviously with everything that happened, I still managed to come back and win. So that was one of my biggest wins that year."
Those were the days when Murray's critics rejoiced in pointing to his lack of fitness and emotional immaturity. Just three years on and Murray's strength and stamina is the envy of most of his peers, while his approach to the Open is so controlled and low-key as to appear almost nonchalant.
Murray is anything but blas, but he refuses to be caught up with all the excitement and hyperbole that surrounds his preparations for the Open. The bookies can make him the favourite if they want, but Murray just wants to get his first match under his belt.
"That stuff makes absolutely no difference to me at all," Murray said. "I think in the lead-up, being the favourite for the title is obviously something I'm not particularly used to, but in the last few months I have been the favourite to win the majority of the matches that I've played.
"You get used to it a little bit, but once you play your first match – and I might be a little bit nervous early in my first match – if I can come through that one and get into the tournament then it doesn't make any difference at all."
Beating Nadal at the Abu Dhabi exhibition tournament helped whip up the international media interest in Murray and did much for the Scot's confidence as the season began.
But it is the belief he now has in his ability to match any player muscle for muscle that has given Murray a new and harder edge. He has always known that he has the tactical nous to beat anyone, but since he first formed Team Murray and worked tirelessly on his strength and stamina, he knows he has the physical ability to match any opponent.
"I just think that my fitness is the one thing that has made a huge difference to all of my game, from the serve to balance on wide balls to being able to hang in better in long matches," he said.
"They were things that I needed to work on. My first serve percentage has got better and better and this year has started off very good. I just think with a bit more strength in your legs and upper body, you can maintain that speed and that consistency for the long matches. I'm hoping that I can keep that going here."
Experience, too, counts for a lot at the sharp end of a tournament. Murray may not have won a grand slam title – yet – but he has been to the US Open final and knows what it takes to play seven best-of-five set matches back-to-back. So far he has only managed to win six of the seven but with what he has learned and the work he has put in over the Christmas break, he believes he has what it takes to go one better.
"The US Open was a great experience for me," he said. "It did make a big difference – just being able to say that you've played all the matches, you've been to a slam final, it was a great experience and I hope that if I'm in that situation again, I'll play much better."
First things first, though – he has to beat Pavel. Last year he arrived in Australia in the form of his life and was beaten in the first round by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, his potential quarter-final opponent this time around. But if Murray's on-court form of this year, and his calm and collected approach this week are anything to go by, there will be a lot more Poms sporting bruises by the time this Australian Open is finished.
With Andy Murray the man to beat going into the Australian Open next week, here is the British No1's potential route to grand slam glory in Melbourne.
First round: Andrei Pavel (Romania, unseeded). Pavel should provide little danger. The 34-year-old, now ranked outside the top 1,000, has not played since last February because of a back injury.
Second round: Marcel Granollers (Spain, unseeded). Granollers is at a career-high 50th in the rankings but prefers the slower clay. Murray beat him on that surface in Barcelona in 2006.
Third round: Jurgen Melzer (Austria, 31). Murray beat big-hitting Melzer three times last year, notably in the third round of the US Open.
Fourth round: Radek Stepanek (Czech Republic, 22). The 30-year-old is a wily customer, but the Scot has won their two previous matches easily.
Quarter-finals: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (France, 5). Tsonga beat Murray in the first round here last year on his way to the final. Tsonga has explosive power, but he is also inconsistent and injury prone – indeed, he may not even play in Melbourne because of a back injury.
Semi-finals: Rafael Nadal (Spain, 1). Murray beat the world No1 in Abu Dhabi earlier this month. Hard courts are not Nadal's favourite surface and he was blitzed by Tsonga at the same stage last year.
Final: Roger Federer (Switzerland, 2). Federer has lost four on the trot against Murray. In their last meeting, in the semi-finals of the Qatar Open last weekend, Federer looked like he had no idea how to beat the world No4.