Australia Open: Murray has the look of contender

Andy Murray celebrates after defeating Jo�o Sousa of Portugal in yesterday's third-round clash at the Australian Open.  Picture: AP
Andy Murray celebrates after defeating Jo�o Sousa of Portugal in yesterday's third-round clash at the Australian Open. Picture: AP
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NOTHING IN life is certain and nothing in sport is guaranteed. Just a handful of days ago, Andy Murray was supposed to be facing mission impossible: plotting his path past four of the world’s best players (and three of the sport’s greatest champions) to get his hands on the Norman Brookes trophy.

At the time, no one could have imagined that Roger Federer could lose to Andreas Seppi, a man he’d beaten ten times before or that Grigor Dimitrov would look so shaky as he tiptoed past the veteran Marcos Baghdatis in five sets. With Rafael Nadal refusing to back himself for a shot at the title, suddenly Murray’s chances have perked up.

The world No 6 steamrollered his way into the fourth round yesterday, thrashing João Sousa 6-1, 6-1, 7-5 and booking himself in for tomorrow’s appointment with Dimitrov. Murray was sharp, he was aggressive and he was home and hosed in two hours and six minutes. The second week has been reached and not a set has been dropped.

He is relishing the thought of taking on Maria Sharapova’s current squeeze. The only time they have met in a Grand Slam event was at Wimbledon last summer. Just as here, Murray had romped through the early rounds, but when he bumped into the Bulgarian on Centre Court, he was listless and lethargic and was hammered in straight sets. Now, six months on and feeling fitter than he has felt in 18 months, he is keen to have another crack at one of the new generation of Grand Slam pretenders.

“I’m excited to be in the fourth round, it’ll obviously be a difficult match,” Murray said. “He’s a tricky player to play against, he’s a talented guy, can play a lot of shots, very good shot-maker. I’m not more excited to play him than I’d be to play anyone else really. I’ve obviously played three matches here so far and a bunch of practice matches against the best players. When you play them for real things change a little bit. He’s close to top ten in the world, I don’t know if he will move in there after this week. He’s a quality player so we will see how it goes. I hope I am a step up in class for him as well.”

That Wimbledon loss mystified everyone. No one could understand how Murray had changed from fired-up, defending champion to Dimitrov’s punch bag in the space of a couple of days. Rumours spread like wildfire – everything from him not being ready to play when called to the court to unhappiness in the team – and every pundit had a pet theory for his malaise. Murray, though, soon shrugged off the defeat and put it down to playing a poor match; a bad day at work.

“I came to terms with it quickly because I just played badly,” he said. “There was no reason for me to play that way. I played great in the first week at Wimbledon. I was feeling really good, I was playing extremely well. I happened to play a bad match and that obviously can happen at any time in an individual sport. Unfortunately for me it happened at Wimbledon so it was disappointing.

“You can’t stop yourself playing a bad match. It happens three or four times a year probably to most of the players. If you look back to when Sampras and Agassi played, they would have bad matches during the year. Obviously with Rafa and Novak and Roger, the consistency they’ve shown – and everyone talks about it as being incredible – so when someone does have a bad match, everyone’s like whoa, what happened? But it does happen from time to time.

“I don’t expect that to happen in a couple of days. I feel good just now, I feel confident, I feel pretty calm and there’s no reason why I should be concerned of that happening in a few days.”

With three finals to his credit already in Melbourne, it is no surprise that Murray loves his trip Down Under ever January. Had it not been for Federer (once) and Novak Djokovic (twice), he would have had his first Australian Open title long ago. But in his first two finals, he froze and in his third, he was simply beaten by the better player on the night. By that stage he had already won the US Open so the defeat was not as devastating as some of his other Grand Slam losses. And, anyway, six months later, he was crowned as the new Wimbledon champion so he was happy enough with the season’s results.

“I like the conditions here the most of all the slams outside of Wimbledon,” Murray said. “I like the balls here compared to the US Open. For me that’s the main difference, although I have obviously played well in New York. I find the balls easier to control. I would certainly say I’m at my most comfortable aside from Wimbledon.”

The only cloud in Murray’s otherwise blue sky is his still grumbling resentment over his treatment last September. When he cramped in the opening round of the US Open, he was accused of everything from faking injury to not coping with pressure. When Nadal was struggling with cramp and sickness in his second-round match against Tim Smyczek on Wednesday, he was praised for fighting through the pain.

“When I cramped and won in the US Open last year, I was a “drama Queen, unfit, needs to see a shrink, faker” weird…” Murray tweeted on 
Wednesday night.

Yesterday, he was still smarting and explained his tweet to all who cared to listen. “I just remember what it was like for me when I came off the court at the US Open when I was in a lot of trouble, a lot of bother,” Murray explained.

“It was very uncomfortable and quite painful. Some of the stuff that was said about me I thought was completely unfair. Being told that I need to see a psychologist because of it I felt was a little bit unfair. I didn’t hear anyone calling for Rafa to see a psychologist the other night.”

Given that Murray is looking to be the fittest and the most relaxed of all the big names in the bottom half of the draw, no one is likely to have the chance to criticise him for the duration of his stay at Melbourne Park.

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