AS RAFAEL Nadal and Stan Wawrinka try to settle their nerves and get the Australian Open final under way this morning, Andy Murray will be cruising at 36,000 feet, about four hours away from beginning his final descent into Los Angeles International airport.
His first grand slam campaign of the year will have been consigned to memory, while his recovery from a back operation is clearly going well. Now he has another challenge to overcome – a Davis Cup tie on clay against the United States. This is Britain’s first appearance in the World Group, the elite division of the competition, since 2008 – and they have not won a World Group tie since 1986. The team has worked hard and waited long for this chance so they have to take any chance that comes their way.
Somehow, Murray, pictured, has to lead his team-mates Kyle Edmund, James Ward and Colin Fleming past vastly more experienced opposition. He may be a double grand slam champion but Edmund has a world ranking of 372 and Ward is No.165. Colin Fleming, Murray’s old friend and sometime doubles partner, is now the world No.30 in his discipline, but he will be up against the might of the Bryan brothers, the best doubles team in the world.
The Americans have called upon the services of John Isner, the world No.13 and Sam Querrey, the No.51, to lead the singles attack and, while a slow clay court may not be their favourite surface, captain Jim Courier knows that clay suits the Brits even less. And clay is the surface that caused Murray so much pain before his back surgery last October.
Even so, Courier is a wily old campaigner and he knows that, if Scotland’s finest is able to compete on all three days of the tie, the result is very much in the balance. It only takes three points to win a tie and, if Murray plays three matches, that is three winnable points. He watched with interest as the world No.4 reached the quarter-finals in Melbourne and then, in only his seventh match back from a three-month lay-off, took Roger Federer to four sets. The Scot may have looked tired and sore at the end but Courier was still impressed with the way he has come back from injury. “I think it was a strong effort for him to play as well as he did against Federer, considering what he’s come back from,” Courier said. “He’s an awesome tennis player and I expect him to play well whenever he plays. But to do it over the best of five sets is a strong effort for sure.
“I certainly thought his back looked like it was limiting him towards the end of that Federer match. I thought he was courageous to stay out there and fight and try to play through what was clear to us was a problem for him.”
The Bryan brothers are expecting to meet Murray next Saturday afternoon and they cannot imagine that he will be partnering anyone else but Fleming.
“I think if Andy goes to Davis Cup he’s going to play doubles,” Bob Bryan said. “He’s not going to just show up there and hope they can get through. If he shows up, I think he’s going to put all his efforts into winning that tie.
“We’ve played Andy in the past and there’s a ton of stuff he does well, as we all know. It will be a really tough match. He’s got the hands. He plays great doubles and volleys well. And you’ve got to say he’ll play with Fleming just because they’ve played a lot of matches in the past.”
That drama will play out next weekend but, meanwhile, back in Melbourne, Nadal is chasing history. Should he beat Wawrinka today – and the odds are stacked heavily in his favour – he will become only the third man in history and the first man in the Open Era to complete a second career grand slam, winning all four major trophies at least twice. Only Roy Emerson and Rod Laver managed the feat before but that was back in the day of wooden rackets when three of the major championships were played on grass.
Trying to stop the mighty Spaniard is poor old Wawrinka. This is his first grand slam final and to get here he has been playing the tennis of his life. Coached by Magnus Norman, the former world No.2, he has a new self-belief. He knows he has the game to beat almost any player in the world. The trouble is, he is playing Nadal and, in 12 previous meetings, he has failed to win so much as a set.
“I play him so many times, lost so many times, but going to try again,” Wawrinka sighed. “I know what I have to do: I know that I have to play aggressive, serve really well, and trying to always push him. We’ll see how I can do that tomorrow night.”
Sadly, that is exactly what Federer thought before he faced Nadal on Friday night, and he took a straight-set thumping. Nadal’s 14th grand slam title beckons and history is waiting to be rewritten.