FIVE years ago, Andy Murray played Yen-hsun Lu in a big tournament. He appeared to be in good form, having won his previous competition. He was a strong favourite to win. He lost.
As he prepares to take on the Taiwanese player in today’s second round, Murray will need no reminding of that shock first-round defeat at the Beijing Olympics. He mulled it over continually from that summer day in 2008 to last year’s Games here at Wimbledon, where he won gold.
So, for all that the Scot is superficially in a similar position now – having won at Queen’s ten days ago, and being an overwhelming favourite to win today – the reality is significantly different. Murray was a lesser player in 2008, less consistent and prone to dips in form.
There is a simple illustration of the changes he has gone through since. In the first Grand Slam of 2008, the Australian Open, he lost in the first round to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He has not gone out at the same stage in any major since.
“This is going to sound like an excuse, but it is the reality,” Murray said after beating Benjamin Becker here on Monday when asked to look back to Beijing, and forward to today’s meeting with the 29-year-old Lu. “We arrived there late because of Cincinnati [where he won] and it was tough conditions in Beijing.
“I was so excited to be part of the Olympics that I literally went to the opening ceremony and I was sweating so much. I wanted to meet all of the other athletes and basically enjoy the whole experience and basically forgot a little bit that I was there to win tennis matches.
“That is why when the Olympics came around this time – and it was four years I had to wait – I was determined to put that to bed, that I had messed up a little bit. I learned a lot from that match.”
What we have learned since then is to expect a lot of Murray; to presume that he will beat more lowly ranked opponents such as Lu, who is 73rd in the world and has never been in the top 30. But the only reason we can make such a presumption is that Murray himself never presumes anything.
No matter the opponent, no matter how easily he is expected to win, he prepares in the same meticulous way. Some of his victories in the early rounds of slams may seem routine to us, but he insisted that the key to making them look like that was to take nothing for granted.
“When you are out on the court, none of the matches feel like that. You don’t think, ‘I’m two sets up and cruising here,’ or ‘This is feeling comfortable’. All of these guys are really, really good players. The result may seem comfortable, but it certainly does not feel it on the court.
“I think I’ve got better over the last few years at just being ready for the first match, having my head on, and not playing a bad first set or getting off to a slow start. I’ve definitely improved at that, and that’s maybe why some of the results at the beginning of slams have been better.
“Tsonga in Australia was a tough match. Those are the sort of things you learn from. He was two years older than me and he has gone on to become one of the best players in the world.
“You never know – whoever it is you are playing against – they may be ready to shoot up the rankings. One big result on a big court and they’re flying up there. You have to make sure you are ready. Rafa’s result is a perfect example of that,” he added, referring to Nadal’s defeat on Monday by Steve Darcis of Belgium. “You just can’t take anything for granted.”
One thing that can still be taken for granted, unfortunately, is the absence of any British men apart from Murray in the second week of a Grand Slam. But, while home hopes have again suffered a disappointing couple of days, he is confident that better days will come, thanks to the efforts of newcomer Kyle Edmund as well as the established top two in the British women’s game, Laura Robson and Heather Watson.
“I wish there were more players winning matches – it’s better for the tennis in this country and it’s better for me too, selfishly, if that’s happening. It has obviously not been the case, but there are some good young players coming through.
“Kyle is doing well: he has the right attitude and work ethic to get himself into these tournaments by right.
“And obviously Laura and Heather are going to be around for a while too. They have had tough years so far, but they will be learning all the time and I hope in the next few years when Wimbledon comes round that we have more players in as of right and more players in the second round.”
In contrast to the state of the sport in its homeland, tennis in Asia is definitely on the up. Li Na of China is in the women’s top ten, and it is surely only a matter of time before an Asian man follows the former French Open champion in winning a Grand Slam.
“It would be good for the sport when that happens,” Murray said. “Obviously, Kei [Nishikori of Japan] has done really well. He is close to the top ten and he would be the first Asian man to be in the top ten.
“Li Na has done well and tennis has got much bigger in China because of that. The Japanese have had three or four guys in the top 100 at one time.
“Yen-hsun has been about for some time, but if you look at the Challenger results there are more guys and their level is rising. I am sure that in ten, 15 years this will grow more and more.”
Tennis in Taiwan would certainly receive a massive boost if Lu were to win today. But this is not 2008, and Murray is twice as tough as he was then. Another straight-sets win beckons.