Slowly, slowly, step by step, everything is falling into place for Andy Murray at the Australian Open.
The departure of Novak Djokovic on Thursday evening is not a part of that process: as the top seed, Murray could only have played the No 2 in the final and that is a matter for next weekend. But for the moment, everything else is going well.
The world No 1 did what he usually does against Sam Querrey – he squashed him for the seventh time in eight meetings. Yesterday’s hiding was an impressive 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 victory that moved the Scot into the last 16 of the tournament. As is his wont against the big servers, Murray dismantled the American’s biggest weapon and then set about running him ragged. Tall at 6ft 6ins and sturdy at 15 stones, movement is not big Sam’s forte – but it is one of Murray’s many strengths.
With no obvious sign of any lingering issues with his right ankle – he rolled it in his last match – Murray was nimble and he was aggressive. Once he had the first break in the opening set, he was in control and Querrey looked like he was dragging concrete uphill.
“I think I’ve played a little bit better each match,” Murray said. “There’s not been one thing I’ve been delighted with. I thought I moved much better today than I did in the first two matches, which is really positive for me. Each match I think I’ve improved a little bit. That’s a good sign. Hopefully I keep getting better.
“The start of the match was hard. Sam came out serving big. He was really going for his shots. Yeah, the end of that first set was important. He had a breakpoint at 4-3. When I saved that and broke the next game, momentum was with me. Started to serve a bit better, put a lot more returns back in play after that. Played some good stuff.”
So now he faces Zverev. Not Alexander Zverev, the highly tipped young German world No 24 but his older brother Mischa. The elder Zverev is 29 and grew up in the junior ranks with Murray and Djokovic and had it not been for a series of career-threatening injuries, he might be more of a household name.
It was watching his little brother – Alexander, known as Sascha, is ten years younger than Mischa – take his first promising steps in the senior ranks that persuaded him to give his career one final chance.
Travelling with his brother, training with his brother, coached by his mother and father, the two Zverevs are very much a family unit. But where once Alexander looked to his big brother for help and advice, now it is the other way round. Mischa gets the benefit of training and practising with a top player and measures his progress by how he matches up to young Sascha. Now he is ranked No 50 in the world and through to the first grand slam fourth round of his career.
“It’s a big motivation seeing Sascha on court and doing well and beating those guys,” Mischa said. “And I always say when I see him beating those top guys, I also start believing in myself because every time I practise, I kind of compare my game to his level and if I feel I can keep up with him then it means I can keep up with other guys, too.”
Murray has known the Zverev family for as long as he can remember. The similarities between his family and theirs are striking – Andy and Jamie were introduced to the sport by their mother, Judy; the Zverev boys are coached by their parents. Andy and Jamie are ridiculously competitive with each other and always have been; The Zverev boys, despite the ten-year age gap, cannot help but try to outdo each other. And family means everything to all of them.
“Obviously everyone’s relationship is different,” Murray said, “but with me anyway, with Jamie, because we’re close in age, we used to do everything together, and compete against each other all of the time – that’s how it helped me. And I’m sure they didn’t practise together loads when they were growing, because of their age, but now how great is it to have a top-20 player in the world to practise with all the time, and talk to you about tennis, to help, to bounce ideas off each other? I’m sure Mischa can help Alex a lot too.
“I’ve known the family since 12, 13 years old. I used to remember Alex, he was always there on the side of the court. He was tiny back then, but he was always there at the side of the court hitting. Both the parents were there. It’s good to see.”
Whether it will help enough to put a dent in Murray’s iron-clad defences we will discover tomorrow. But the form book suggests Zverev may have done his dash in Melbourne for this year.