His place is booked in the third round of the Australian Open, his back is feeling better with every match and he is yet to drop a set in Melbourne – Andy Murray may not be quite himself again but he is getting there day by day.
His 6-2, 6-2, 7-5 win over France’s Vincent Millot yesterday was not as impressive as his demolition of Go Soeda in the first round but the way he raised his game and screwed down his concentration to run away with the last 23 points of the match was vintage Murray. The world No 267 had had the temerity to go for broke in the third set and, holding a set point as he served at 5-1 up, he tried to encourage the crowd to cheer for him. It was a schoolboy error. You don’t do that to the Wimbledon champion. From that moment, Murray did not allow him to win another point in the match.
Murray’s preparation for the evening’s endeavours had been anything but relaxed as he had spent much of the day helping his brother, Jamie, recover from heatstroke. As the temperatures soared to 43.4C, the tournament finally implemented their extreme heat policy and suspended play on the outside courts and closed the roof on the two main showcourts.
But, by that time, Jamie and his partner John Peers had already spent nearly two hours in the sun to beat Matt Reid and Luke Saville 7-6, 7-6. By the time they were done, the temperature had hit 40C and, an hour and a half after they got off court, Jamie was felled by full body cramps. “It’s easy to say just get on with it, it’s not that bad,” Murray said, “but when its someone in your family who is dealing with it, it’s their health that is involved, you see that it’s fairly serious, it’s different.
“It is easy to say he was only playing doubles and it’s not as physically demanding as the singles, he’s out there for two sets, he trains fairly hard – he could train a little harder sometimes – but it’s very tough conditions and seeing him like that, it wasn’t so much he was cramping but that he was scared.
“When one part of your body goes and then you move, the opposite muscle goes. It’s pretty scary. He’s never dealt with anything like that before and being on your own, it’s difficult, so I tried to make sure someone was around him the whole day.”
The combination of worrying about his brother and trying to fit in some practice in the ferocious heat and yet still keep as much gas in the tank a possible was something of a juggling act and was not exactly a textbook preparation for a grand slam match.
Together with the sudden change in conditions – as the heat finally began to recede, so the humidity rose – it went a good way to explaining the missing spark in Murray’s play in the first couple of sets. He was cruising through but was not at his best. And then Millot went on the rampage and Murray had to respond.
“You need to make sure you conserve energy as much as possible throughout the day,” explained Murray, “but, because what was happening with Jamie was more important than my match, it was a little distracting as well. You just need to try not to use up any extra energy. No fist pumps. I don’t want to say you’re not chasing down every single ball but you’re a bit more thoughtful about how you are playing the points, the games and playing the score a little bit. That’s all you can do.
“When Millot was getting the crowd into it at 5-2, it might have distracted him a little bit but it re-focused me a bit more and my intensity went up around that period and I turned it around.”
Turning it around barely describes the 23-point landslide that overwhelmed the Frenchman. From hitting winners with abandon, Millot suddenly faced Murray at his determined and competitive best. And, while the crowd totted up the number of consecutive points won, the Scot was oblivious to the level of his domination until he went to serve for the match.
“At 6-5, someone shouted out, You won 19 points in a row,” Murray said. “I would say that’s probably the most I’d ever won in my career by far. I mean, it’s very difficult to do. I don’t really know how I did it. But, yeah, I didn’t realise until I went to serve for the match. It’s not easy to do either. Good way to finish the match.”
Tomorrow Murray will face the familiar figure of Feliciano Lopez. He has played the Spaniard seven times and won every time so at least Murray will know what to expect when he gets to the court. After playing two men he had never encountered before, facing good old Lopez will come as a relief.
“Feliciano doesn’t give you loads of rhythm,” he said, “but I guess just knowing his game, understanding the way he’s going to play and the level he’s going to bring to the court will make it a little easier for me to be more consistent. It’s natural that, as I play more matches, I’ll feel
better and be more comfortable but, being 5-1 down in the third set in such humidity as there was tonight, these are all little tests for me that I’ve managed to get through so far, Feli will be another one.”
Murray is clearly not looking too far ahead as he makes his way back from his back operation. Then again, the champion in him refuses to miss any opportunity and, even if he is only a few matches into his comeback, he will not write off his chances of success in Melbourne. “In the first match I played very well and the more you get tested you raise your game,” he said. “Today I didn’t hit the ball that well and I’m going to be a bit inconsistent just now but, if I can get myself into the second week, stranger things have happened.”