THERE is not much that can stop Andy Murray in his quest for another grand slam title but, like every other sports fan around the globe, he downed tools and sat glued to the box as Lance Armstrong spoke to Oprah Winfrey last night.
Fortunately, the time difference meant that Murray was watching the programme at lunchtime in Melbourne, so his schedule was not unduly interrupted and he was determined to listen to every word Armstrong had to say.
Murray is a vehement campaigner against drugs in sport. Just last November, he appealed to the tennis authorities to introduce more random blood testing in the hope of cracking down even harder on the drugs cheats. Although he does get a little weary of people taking his every utterance and blowing it out of all proportion, the Scot will say his piece about drug abuse, no matter what the consequences.
So, when former player Christophe Rochus claimed in a Belgian newspaper on Tuesday that doping is still widespread in tennis, Murray was obliged to defend his sport.
“Like everyone, I saw some things,” Rochus said. “For me, it is inconceivable to be able to play five hours in the blazing sun one day and still run like a rabbit the next day.”
Murray was having none of that.
“I would say that is far from the truth,” he said. “Anyone can see the amount of hours of training and practice that go into what we do and there are other sports that are endurance-wise far more challenging than tennis.
“The guys can’t play five or six hours and then come back the next day and run around like a rabbit.
“When guys play five or six hours in the slams, like we often do, we have a day’s rest. I was told that after our match last year here, I was told that Novak, on the day off, didn’t practice, didn’t hit a ball, didn’t get out of bed till three o’clock. Providing you put the work in, it doesn’t mean it hurts any less when you have to play a couple of days later after a five-hour match, but I would not say it is impossible.”
Murray, though, did not have to worry about such things as he eased into the third round. He took just 101 minutes to crush Joao Sousa 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 in the stifling 40-degree heat. The forecasters had predicted that yesterday was going to be a scorcher and, prepared for the worst, Murray showed no signs of wanting to hang about in the sun.
Sousa looked to be in the same frame of mind – he really wasn’t very good – and, save for a bit of a fightback in the third set, he never looked as if he had the wish or the wherewithal to stick around on court.
“I got up a couple of breaks pretty quickly in the first two sets so I could try to shorten the points, which helps,” Murray said. “I also served well today, too. I got a lot of free points on my serve. There were very few long rallies so it worked out well for me because it was really, really tough conditions.”
Tomorrow Murray faces the diminutive Ricardas Berankis, the world No 110 from Lithuania. Berankis – his name means “no arms” in Lithuanian – knows the Scot of old, having practised with him many times before. He also has the taste for British blood after being part of the Lithuania team that humiliated Britain (without Murray) in the Davis Cup a couple of years ago. That win was big news in Vilnius. “Yes it was big news,” he grinned, “and in England also!”
So far, Berankis has dropped just one set in his five matches at Melbourne Park (he came through three rounds of the qualifying competition before getting into the main draw) and yesterday he flattened Florian Mayer, the No 25 seed, 6-2, 6-3, 6-1. The conditions clearly suit him down to the ground.
“I actually hit with him a lot,” Murray said. “I trained with him before the Australian Open last year. I practiced with him in Brisbane and I practiced with him a couple times before the tournament here, before he started the qualifying last year. I practiced with him again in Brisbane this year.
“He works hard. He’s a really nice, really nice guy. He plays well. He is not that tall and he hits the ball pretty big from the back of the court. He plays aggressive. He’s a very flat hitter of the ball. He’s obviously playing well to beat a guy like Mayer that comfortably. It was a very good win.”
Berankis is certainly confident at the moment and thinks that having practised with Murray in the past will help with some of his pre-match nerves but, even so, he knows he has a mountain to climb if he is to bridge the huge gap in rankings and class between himself and the world No 3 “I’m just going to try my best,” he said simply. “Playing a top player is always tough but the main thing is that I feel quite calm because I have practised a bit with him. It’s not going to be a big surprise to see who is on the other side of the net but I will have to do everything as well as possible, that’s the key. If everything goes well, we’ll see how it goes.”