Maybe, just maybe, Andy Murray has finally got his timing right. His form coming into the Australian Open was good – he was playing well – but then life took over and his grand slam challenge was in danger of being derailed.
It might yet come to nothing if he cannot get the better of Milos Raonic this morning or, indeed, if he gets the call from home that his baby is on its way. But if the phone stays silent and Murray can continue the progress he feels he was making in the previous round against David Ferrer, he could be on course for a fifth final in Melbourne Park.
I hit a lot more winners than in my other matches which would suggest I’m feeling a lot more comfortable on the courtAndy Murray
“I could play terrible in the next match – that’s possible – but I do feel like I started to find my game a little bit more,” he said. “I was able to hit the ball a lot cleaner so I could come into the net, I hit a lot more winners today than in my other matches which would suggest I’m feeling a lot more comfortable on the court. If I can keep progressing like that and playing that sort of game style where I’m being aggressive and a bit more unpredictable by coming forward, keep going for my serves and getting free points there, then it’ll make a big difference.”
He will need to do something different against Raonic. The big Canadian is playing the tennis of his life at the moment and with a serve that could split concrete, he has demolished everyone who has dared to cross his path. He has played Murray six times with honours even but this meeting will be a bit different. Raonic parted company with his coach Ivan Ljubicic at the end of last year (Ljubicic is now working with Roger Federer) and he signed Carlos Moya to his team. It seems strange to think that a Spaniard, a man from the land of the baseliner, could encourage the Canadian to charge the net, but that is what he has done.
For years, people have looked at Raonic and wondered why, with a serve that powerful, he did not think to nip in behind it from time to time. Now he is doing just that and the result is a title in Brisbane at the start of the month and a place in the last four here. No one has beaten him in 2016.
But if the big servers have an Achilles heel it is usually – bizarrely – their serve: get that back and they start to panic. Jamie Murray discovered this about Raonic on the doubles court. “I have played him a couple of times,” Jamie said. “Obviously his whole game is built around his serve. If you can nullify that, then that is a huge part of his game that you have taken away from him. And obviously Andy is one of the best returners in the world. Andy’s movement is so great that hopefully he can get himself into position so he is the one moving Raonic around the court and dictating more of the longer rallies. It will be a tough ask.
“The guy has not lost a match this year. I am sure he will be feeling confident about his game but I still like Andy’s chances. He tends to play well against big servers – he has got a good record against John Isner, Ivo Karlovic, those sort of guys. I still feel that if Andy plays his best then his level is better than Raonic’s.”
No one could ever accuse Raonic of being frivolous; he is deadly serious about absolutely everything with no hint of a sense of humour. His hair is the subject of much discussion (it never moves, not even in a wind tunnel) and it is about the most interesting part of his personality. Or it was until he started wearing a gum shield night and day.
Apparently, the big man grinds his teeth and after much consultation with a chiropractor, he decided that his clenched jaw was giving him a bad back. And that it had possibly led to the gammy foot that required surgery last summer to free a pinched nerve. Raonic’s chiropractor is clearly a man of great vision and imagination. Between them, they concluded that a gum shield would be the answer to all of Raonic’s woes.
The news of this brought a quizzical look to Murray’s face. This was a new one on him. Then again, if he can start pinging back a few of the Canadian’s serves, he might just get Raonic to start gnashing those molars again and then who knows what might happen.
But to compete with the world No 14, Murray will need to be on his toes both mentally and physically. His conditioning is not in question but after all the stresses of the last week, no one would blame him for being a little distracted. These days, though, the Scot spends some time with a psychiatrist to understand the working of the mind under pressure. He now knows well enough why he feels the way he does at times on court – the trick is make sure he can stop it from happening.
“I think, for me, if I’m physically in good shape, I feel like that helps me mentally,” he said. “For some, the mental side maybe helps them physically as well – everyone is different in that respect. You need to work hard: you can’t just be mentally strong and not work hard. If you want to get to the top of the game, you need to be very strong mentally but also physically.
“What it comes down to is being able to play your best tennis under pressure and making the right decisions under pressure. A lot of that is mental; a lot of it is experience as well. At the end of the day, it is just a sport and that’s what you always have to remember. I think that helps.”
When your wife is about to have your first baby and your father-in-law has just come through a serious health scare, tennis – even a grand slam semi-final – is no more than a game. That sort of perspective could just free Murray’s mind enough to get him through this morning’s battle. Maybe, then, he has got his timing right after all.