WHEN he first landed in Australia, Andy Murray may not have liked the odds on him winning at Melbourne Park and collecting his third grand slam trophy but as the first week has unfolded, he is beginning to change his mind.
The Scot is safely through to the fourth round after his 7-6, 6-4, 6-2 clumping of Feliciano Lopez yesterday and with every round that passes, he is feeling better. His comeback from back surgery is only three weeks old, but both mentally and physically he is getting stronger. By the time he had wrapped up the opening set against Lopez with a clinical tiebreak (he allowed the Spaniard just two points), he was playing well, taking his chances and dominating the world No.27 from all quarters of the court. It was not a bad day’s work.
“I am playing better than I was a couple of weeks ago and feeling more comfortable on the court,” Murray said. “How much higher are my expectations now? I don’t know. My expectations are still fairly low just now. I’m not expecting too much of myself but obviously with each round that goes by, I’m starting to feel more comfortable on the court and the body is going to adjust to playing matches again. I don’t know how far I can go but I’m doing OK so far.”
Each round has provided a different set of challenges, each one getting progressively harder. And Murray has proved himself on each occasion: he has yet to drop a set. Now, just as he is beginning to find his level, he faces an unknown quantity in Stephane Robert of France.
Robert, ranked just 119 in the world, is a lucky loser from the qualifying competition and only got his call-up to the main draw on Tuesday morning when Philipp Kohlschreiber pulled out with a dodgy hamstring. From packing his bags and returning to the Challenger circuit, Robert now finds himself in the second week of a grand slam for the first time in his long career. At the age of 33, he can hardly believe his luck.
To say that Robert is a journeyman is to put it mildly. His greatest achievement prior to this week was to reach the second round of the French Open in 2011 by beating Tomas Berdych. It was one day of glory in a 14-year career but the moment was brief. Just last year, he was so down on his luck that he was spending his nights in the Melbourne casino to try to earn the cash to pay his hotel bill as he tried – and failed – to qualify for the Open. Not that he cared – he is the eternal optimist and believes that if he keeps trying, his day will come. “Last year, I was on a tight budget, I used to go to the casino to make money and that went well,” Robert said. “This year, I go every night. I’m having fun. On Wednesday, I lost but I’m always positive. I play at roulette and Sunday night I came across Nadal and Feliciano Lopez at the blackjack tables. I like the atmosphere and it relaxes me. Otherwise, I read a lot of newspapers. Le Monde Diplomatique allows me to have an opening to the world and to understand what is happening in all countries. “I love to discover new places and meet people. It’s great to have this link. I love listening to stories. I love sharing. Here I am having fun with the drivers in cars, I make them laugh by telling them all that I do.
“Last year, I spent two nights in a youth hostel when I arrived in Melbourne. I shared a room with a New Zealander. For the Australian Open, I told him to stay with me in a hotel and I got him accreditation so he could discover the tournament. He still sends me messages and he follows my results.”
Against Murray, Robert thinks the odds are even. “Either he is going to win or I am going to win,” he said with a Gallic shrug.
Many years ago, when Murray was making his way through the ranks, he spent a few months on the Futures and Challenger circuits. There he saw Robert, grafting away just like everyone else. All that has changed since those days is that Murray has moved on and Robert hasn’t. Even so, the world No.4 is duly impressed by Robert’s achievements. “I know him a little bit [from] when I was coming through the Futures and Challengers,” Murray said. “Playing in Europe and in the UK, I’ve seen him play a little bit then. Obviously that was quite a while ago now.
“But it’s good to see. He’s obviously 33 years old. It could be easy to stop playing if you’re not in the top hundred or necessarily making a great living. But it does show if you stick at it, you’re professional, when your chance comes, you take it, you can do great things. Great for him. Good for tennis as well.”
Good for tennis, but even better for Murray. He may not be backing himself to win the title this year – although he admitted after his match on Thursday that “stranger things have happened” – but he must fancy his chances of reaching the quarter-finals at the very least. The odds will be stacked against Robert on Monday and now that his back is feeling so much better, Murray will be serving all the aces.