Even if he did miss the last three months of the season and even if he has only played a handful of matches since starting his comeback from back surgery, Andy Murray still strikes fear into the hearts of his opponents.
When the draw placed his name alongside that of Go Soeda, it brought a groan from the Japanese and his team. What did they do to deserve this?
“It’s a good job his name is Go because I think Andy will make him run a lot,” Davide Sanguinetti said with a sigh. The Italian has been coaching Soeda since 2010, and just when he thought his charge was getting back on track after a back injury, the Australian Open has thrown him a first round match-up with Murray tomorrow.
“I thought he could have had a better draw, to tell you the truth,” Sanguinetti added. “To play against a seeded player and especially Andy – it’s tough. You have nothing to lose. He is not playing that bad, he is playing good so I thought maybe we have a chance to go further. But he needed a good draw and we didn’t get it. It’s going to be so hot. 39 degrees. Actually my guy is pretty good with the heat. But I will tell you after the match. He is an all-around player, Andy. Hopefully he is not going to have his best day.”
Ranked 112 in the world, Soeda is clearly not in the same class as the Gang of Four at the top of the pecking order but, even so, he is following their lead by hiring a former player to guide him. Sanguinetti may not be in the same league as Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg, mentors to Murray, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer respectively, but he does know his way around the tour. At the age of 41 he still has a doubles ranking which rose one full place last week to 1246 – not bad for a bloke who played his last match in July of last year.
But it is the clash of cultures that makes the Sanguinetti-Soeda partnership so fascinating. The fiery Italian is trying everything he knows to make his desperately polite and awfully quiet Japanese pupil show a bit of passion on the court – and it isn’t easy.
“I think I need to use his mentality,” Soeda said of his coach. “He always says to me that I need to make myself bigger on court, to show my opponent. I have to learn more. I’m getting better at doing it, but I need to do it more. Sometimes now I do lose my temper on court, like an Italian. I think Andy is a bit like me in temperament.
“Japanese players are normally quiet and reserved. Nishikori is quiet. But he is trying to change as well. That is the Japanese culture. It might be nice on the street or in a restaurant but it’s not a good thing on the tennis court.”
Even when he is at home, Soeda goes unnoticed. Kei Nishikori is Japan’s No 1 and in the event that he is not playing, the Japanese tennis fans would rather watch Murray than the likes of the world No 112.
“I don’t get recognised in the street in Japan,” Soeda said. “Maybe that will change if I win. I hope so. Kei is the big star with TV and everything. Everyone wants to watch Murray when he plays.”
The only similarity between Soeda and Murray is a dodgy back. When he first started working with Sanguinetti, he was ranked 238 in the world. Two years later, he was sitting at a career high of 47 and then, last year, his back gave out and his ranking spiralled downwards.
“Every day I work on my back,” Soeda said. “My problem is that my back is curved and I need to be more upright. Every day I have to use a pole to help me stand up straight. It took me two or three months to start playing normally again but I didn’t have surgery.
“I didn’t win between February and April last year, so I lost confidence. I was struggling. But from Wimbledon onwards I got my confidence and things got better. It took me two or three months to start playing normally again but I didn’t have surgery.”
But even though he is now fit and playing well again, Soeda does not fancy his chances tomorrow. Like Murray, he prefers the hardcourts and, like Murray, he relies on his backhand as a serious weapon. But unlike Murray, he is a journeyman and, faced with the prospect of playing the Wimbledon champion, he sounded like a beaten man.
“It’s a tough draw,” Soeda said, stating the obvious. “I have nothing to lose so I’m going to play my best – 100 per cent or 120 per cent. I have to. Andy has everything – good serve, groundstrokes, movement. I need to do everything great. I need to focus on everything. In the first round everybody gets nervous so if I start well maybe I will have a few chances in the first set.”
Alas for Soeda, one set will not be enough even against a slightly rusty Murray, and if the blistering heat forecast for the next few days materialises, a swift three sets against a less-than-confident Soeda could be just what the doctor ordered as the world No 4 continues his comeback.