It is that time of year again, the time when the great and the good of tennis gather in the beautiful surroundings of Indian Wells in the Californian desert for the first Masters 1000 event of the season.
And it’s usually the time of year when Andy Murray struggles.
In theory, the BNP Paribas Open should be one of Murray’s best events – he loves playing on hard courts and particularly in North America – but he has only reached one final here in 11 previous attempts.
Many times he has arrived in the desert still hurting from losing in the final of the Australian Open and then, last year, he unpacked his bags having taken February off for the birth of his daughter, Sophia, and on the back of a gruelling Davis Cup tie against Japan (he took five sets and almost five hours to beat Kei Nishikori). But this year is different.
This year, Murray has bounded into Indian Wells as the new champion of Dubai and with a glint in his eye. He may have lost in the fourth round at the Australian Open in January but he is secure in his position as the world No.1 and has a healthy 2,000 point lead over the No 2 Novak Djokovic.
He has only 45 ranking points to defend after losing in the third round last year while Djokovic, the defending champion, is trying to guard the 1,000 points he earned last year. By the time the tour moves on to Miami, Murray could be 4,000 ranking points clear of his nearest rival. Not that Murray is thinking of the maths: he is thinking about the trophy.
“I’m not thinking about rankings, I’m thinking about trying to win tournaments,” he said simply. “At the end of last year I was aware with each match that was being played that I was getting closer and closer to getting there [to No 1] but now that I’m there, I’d like to stay but I’m not concentrating on my lead at the top of the rankings.
“When we start the new season on January 1st, it’s back to square one again and I’m still behind Roger [Federer], Rafa [Nadal], [Grigor] Dimitrov, I think [Jo-Wilfried] Tsonga is also ahead of me and a couple of others. So I’ve got some work to do this year and hopefully I can keep building on last week.”
The others may have started the year better than Murray but now he feels that he is ready to make his case as the best player in the world. The bout of shingles that felled him last month has healed and a few weeks of rest at home has recharged his batteries. Winning his first title in Dubai, where he has struggled with the conditions in the past, has given his confidence a pleasing boost and arriving in the desert a week in advance of his opening match (he plays either Vasek Pospisil or Lu Yen-Hsun tomorrow) has given him the opportunity to adapt to the unique conditions in California.
The thin, dry desert air means the ball really flies when it comes off the racket strings but the courts are, to use Murray’s word, “lively”.
The ball bounces high, around shoulder height, producing the most bizarre mix of conditions: fast balls and slow courts. No matter, Murray has come prepared for anything.
“I felt like I wasn’t a bad player just because I played a bad match at the Australian Open,” he said. “I took a break after that, rested up, chatted to my team about some things that I needed to work on – worked on them – got to Dubai nice and early and prepared as best I could.
“I came through a very tough match obviously in the quarters there but I played some good stuff where I hadn’t played that well in the past – the conditions were a struggle. So that gave me a bit of a boost coming here which is also a place where I haven’t played my best.
“I’m hoping it does help me out here for sure: winning tournaments obviously gives you confidence and it’s great for me to get some matches outdoors and in fairly quick conditions in Dubai before coming here.”