IF ANDY Murray thought that winning the US Open was going to relieve some of the pressure that had been sitting so heavily on his shoulders ever since he showed a glimpse of talent as a youngster, he was sadly mistaken.
Just as he was relishing the freedom of preparing for the Australian Open without that nagging, doubting voice whispering in his ear – “yes, Andy, but when are you actually going to win one of these things” – Andre Agassi has backed Scotland’s finest to do well in Melbourne Park and then go on and dominate the rest of the season. No pressure there, then.
Agassi believes that Murray’s breakthrough last summer in winning the title in New York and the Olympic gold medal was forged in the four years of disappointment that preceded it. Those four grand slam final losses, the tears that followed and the back-breaking work that Murray did to move on from them, turned the Scot into a battle-hardened competitor. Now he is ready to take on the likes of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer and beat them in major finals.
“This is Murray’s year to really break through,” Agassi said. “I really think his game can play at that standard [of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer]. He’s slowly come to understand what he needs to do out there as far as not being passive.
“He has so many defensive skills that he does run the risk of falling into the temptation of being passive out there on the court. I think that can get him past everybody, but not the two greatest players to ever play, not to mention Djokovic, who is now starting to be part of that equation.
“The way he got across the line in New York will have a huge impact on him moving forward, because he had to step up and take it. He couldn’t just wait and watch somebody implode. He had to step up in that fifth set and step up to the biggest situation against the biggest player on the biggest stage and take it, and he did.
“If his evolution is anything like mine, that was the real light switch that went off for me. I realised that I can’t hope for somebody to lose. I have to want this enough to go after it. I think once that clicks in for him, you’ll see him playing to their standard throughout the year and for a few years to come.”
In the coming two weeks, Murray is attempting to do what no man has done before in the Open Era, back up his debut grand slam success by winning the next major championship title. It is a huge task, but one that the American believes is perfectly possible. Agassi had to wait another two years before he could add to his Wimbledon title in 1992 but he thinks that Murray is too experienced and too professional to fall into the traps that caught him out all those years ago.
“For me, I thought things would come a lot easier and they didn’t,” Agassi continued, “but, when I realised that they didn’t, I had something to draw on to get me across that finish line. I believe he has very specific goals and objectives. Winning the gold at the Olympics at Wimbledon in front of his home crowd, and being so close at Championships, then getting over the line at the US Open, I have to think he believes he can put a lot of numbers on the board.”
Murray, though, cannot afford to let himself listen to such a ringing endorsement, even it comes from one of his boyhood idols. The sole focus of his attention is Robin Haase, the man he faces in the first round at Melbourne Park tomorrow.
As professionals, their paths have crossed only twice before with honours even at one win apiece. Murray’s one win, however, was desperately close – a five-setter at the US Open in 2011 – and had Haase not been struggling with what he described as a “butt muscle” problem [a pain in the Haase, perhaps], the outcome may have been different. That said, Haase knows that the Murray of today, with his US Open trophy and Olympic gold medal, is a different player from the man he faced in New York 18 months ago.
“It’s a totally different stage now,” Haase said. “Andy is even more of a favourite than normal because he won the last grand slam, he won the Olympics, so he moved up a level again. For me it’s also a different stage. I didn’t have a great year when I played Andy. I was injured and that injury kept going the whole of 2012.
“I finally am getting over it and am feeling better again. I have been working on my body a lot, and I just hope that I can play a whole match just 100 per cent.
“I think it’s a match where we will play some chess. Just move around and play smart and, in the end, my aggression will either take his queen or not.”
At least Murray has someone to share the spotlight with tomorrow. Jamie Baker fought his way through the qualifying competition, beating Donald Young in the final round, and has earned his reward of a meeting with Lukas Rosol in the first round proper tomorrow.
Rosol’s great claim to fame is beating Nadal in the second round of Wimbledon last year although, at the time, no-one knew that the Spaniard was hobbled by a knee injury. Nadal has not played a competitive match since.
Over the Christmas break, Murray invited Baker to train with him at his Miami base and the experience has left Baker even more in awe of his pal than ever.
“He is basically right at the top, one of the best three in the world, and to see what he does on a daily basis has been great,” Baker said. “Just hitting balls with him is so eye opening. At times I will come off the court and say I just cannot understand how he has got that good. I cannot relate to what he is doing with the ball compared to how hard I am trying to do similar things. I can’t relate to it but we are doing all our training sessions together and he isn’t putting any more into it than I am.”
Baker may not be able to match his fellow Scot for talent but, in terms of work ethic and sheer determination, he can certainly compete with Murray. The question remains whether that will be enough to get the better of Rosol.
Andy Murray’s recent record at Melbourne Park is excellent. He was knocked out in the semi-finals by Novak Djokovic last year and in 2010 and 2011, he made the final, losing to Roger Federer and Djokovic respectively.
Earlier in his career, however, he lost in the first round twice. Juan Igancio Chela defeated him in 2006 and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga ousted him in 2008. His overall record in the event is won 23, lost 7.