HIS coach describes the big matches with the big players as “a war”, while Andy Murray remembers vividly the warning from Ivan Lendl before his last match at the Australian Open: “Be prepared to go through a lot of pain.”
For those with their eyes on the trophy at Melbourne Park, the next two weeks will be brutal.
If he is to win his second grand slam trophy, Murray will, in all probability, have to beat Novak Djokovic in the final. It would be their 18th meeting as professionals, a familiarity that has been built on a lifetime of competition, and it would be a re-run of the US Open final. That one went on for nearly five hours and was a fierce, physical battle that left both exhausted and sore.
Born just a week apart in 1987, the two men grew up together in the juniors and now, as they both reach their physical prime, they are destined to spend the rest of their days chasing each other around the globe in pursuit of the biggest prizes the sport can offer. You would think they would be sick of the sight of each other but, no, not a bit of it.
“We get on well,” Murray said cheerily. “Never in any matches have I had any problems with him. We’ve never had any issues with each other in the whole time we’ve been on the tour.
“I know you see it in boxing. You find it amazing that after watching guys punch each other for 12 rounds, they hug each other at the end, they have more respect for each other after that. I think after the matches we’ve played over the last year or so, they have been incredibly physical, they’ve been tough. It has been pretty painful at times, some of the matches. But I think our respect for one another has probably grown over the last 18 months or so. But we never had any problems with each other.
“When I do play against him, it’s a match I enjoy. They’re incredibly tough, physical matches. We played quite a few good ones last year in some of the biggest events. If I get to play Novak here, that would mean it would be in the final. So obviously that’s what I would like to do.”
Although he is a seasoned campaigner, Murray is sailing into uncharted waters this week: he has never known what it felt like to start a major tournament as a grand slam champion. It is true that he feels a huge burden has been lifted from his shoulders now that he has won the US Open, and he is feeling remarkably relaxed on the eve of the Australian Open, but he has no clue how long that feel-good factor will last.
“I have no idea how I’m going to play here,” he said. “I have no idea how I’m going to feel when I go on the court. I said I feel more relaxed. But I don’t know, the day when I play my first match, I could be unbelievably nervous. I don’t know what effect it will have on me until I’m put in that situation.
“I’m very revved up. That’s not the issue. I feel more relaxed than I have done the week before a slam. I felt that way after the US Open and most of the tournaments I played between then and the end of the year. But I didn’t work hard in Miami in the off season to come in and just not be focused or be too relaxed or anything like that. I didn’t train over there for four weeks to come here and put in a really bad performance. I plan on playing well here.”
The hard graft was done in Miami, the on-court practice is going well in Melbourne – Murray feels he is moving well, hitting the ball cleanly and with the Brisbane title already in his kitbag, he knows he is playing well enough as the Open begins. The bitter disappointments of grand slam finals lost in the past are just fading memories while the joy and elation of winning the US Open in September has not blunted his appetite for success. It is just that now as he plots a path through the draw and that potential showdown with Djokovic, he knows he can face his nearest rivals as an equal, as a grand slam champion, and not a man desperate to prove himself to his peers.
“I know how hard these events are to win,” Murray said. “If I don’t win the Australian Open, I don’t think it will be down to having won the US Open. It’s down to the level of competition and how tough it is to win these events rather than what happened four or five months ago.”
These days, Djokovic may be able to beat Murray but never again will he be able to hurt him. The physical battles ahead may be brutal but Murray now has the mental and emotional armour to deal with anything the Australian Open can throw at him.
• Jamie Baker has joined Andy Murray in the main draw at the Australian Open. The Glaswegian yesterday enjoyed a wonderful 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 victory in the final round of qualifying over American Donald Young, who was ranked 39th in the world at the end of 2011.
Baker, ranked 246, was then handed a first-round match with Lukas Rosol, the Czech who caused a sensation at Wimbledon last year by beating Rafael Nadal.
A break in the seventh game handed Baker the first set and although he was swamped in the second, he responded superbly to break early in the decider, aided by a Young double fault.
It is just the second time Baker, left, has managed to make the main draw of a grand slam event outside Wimbledon.
Another tennis Scot was celebrating yesterday. Colin Fleming and Brazilian partner Bruno Soares won the Heineken Open in Auckland.
Fleming and Soares beat Johan Brunstrom and Frederik Nielsen 7-6 (7-1), 7-6 (7-2) to win the New Zealand final. Fleming will now partner Jamie Murray in the Australian Open.