ANDY Murray spent part of his tennis apprenticeship in Spain, numbers several Spanish players among his friends and faces one across the net today when Roberto Bautista Agut tries to prevent the defending champion from taking his place in the last 16.
But Murray’s affection for Spanish sport goes well beyond tennis – and further, too, than his oft-stated enthusiasm for Barcelona.
He and his younger brother Jamie were keen golfers while growing up and, along with their father Willie, were particularly keen admirers of Severiano Ballesteros. Murray still remembers the late Ballesteros fondly, and invested some of his fortune in the film about the five-time major winner which opens in British cinemas today.
“I don’t invest in loads of stuff – I normally try to invest in something that interests me a little bit,” Murray explained. “I watched a lot of golf when I was younger.
“I know my dad was a massive Ballesteros fan – he loved watching him when we were younger. He used to talk about him a lot when we were growing up.
“I get asked about a number of investment opportunities and things like that, but that was something to me that made sense. I obviously love sport, I used to play a lot of golf and he was a pretty amazing guy.
“I never met him, but I used to watch him on TV. I can’t remember exactly where I watched him, but I used to watch a lot of golf when I was younger. We went to watch the tournament in Gleneagles quite a few times which was just down the road from our house. I would have watched him a number of times on the TV.”
Although Jamie had a lower handicap and might have gone on to a career in golf had he opted not to pursue tennis, Andy’s competitive instinct apparently came out whenever money was at stake. “When I used to play for money, I always used to play off 16 or 17,” he continued.
“Everyone got p****d off when I was playing against them. I have never lost a game of golf for money in all the times I have played. I don’t know what my handicap was exactly, but that’s what I used to play off.
“I haven’t played since I started having problems with my back. I couldn’t play when I was having problems with my back and. since the surgery, I haven’t bothered trying, to be honest. I’ll wait till I’ve finished [his tennis career].
“Jamie was very good. When he was 16 or 17, he got down to three. He doesn’t play too much now either.”
Murray moved to Spain when he was 15, in 2002, to continue his tennis education at the Sanchez-Casal Academy. Bautista is just a year younger, but, as far as the Scot can recall, the two never met then. More recently, however, they became friends.
“I didn’t know him at all,” Murray said. “He developed much later. I know him fairly well now, because I’ve hit with him a few times and I chat to him a little bit.
“He’s a very nice guy. Very quiet. Very polite, very good manners. He works hard. He has a very good attitude.
“The first time I practised with him was in Monte Carlo last year. I would have said hi to him at tournaments before then. Since then, I’ve practised with him a number of times. I went to Valencia before the tournament in Madrid and I practised with him there. That’s where he trains – he’s a good player.”
A good player and also an unusual one, in that he has only recently blossomed into a player who can hold his own at this level. “He didn’t have any junior form, so I would say someone that has no junior form and comes through in early to mid 20s is late, but I think that is the way the game has been going the last few years a little bit,” Murray said.
“He’s a good player. He has been improving a lot in the last couple of years playing at this level. He has never really got stuck at a ranking – he’s kept moving up. It will be a tough match for me.”
Bautista has only got beyond the third round in a Grand Slam once, having reached the fourth round in the Australian Open at the start of this year. He only made it to the second round at Wimbledon last year but, since then, has made a distinct improvement in the rankings and is currently at a career high of 23.
Like the Murray brothers, he excelled at other sports. While Jamie could have taken up golf, Andy had the chance to pursue football – a path that was also open to Bautista.
“We both like football a lot and when Andy was in Valencia this year we went to one of the matches,” the man from Castellon de la Plana explained. “I know he still likes to play football, but he never told me he had the chance to play when he was younger.
“I was a striker at Villareal and, while nobody from my time at the club really made it, I know a lot of the players there just now. I think I made the right choice when I opted to become a tennis player, although I think I would have more chance of beating Andy at football. We practise quite a lot together and we always talk about football rather than tennis.”
Bautista will certainly give Murray a harder time than the Scot’s last opponent, but that is by no means a bad thing. While you are grateful for the odd easy match at a two-week tournament, you know that tough contests await in the latter stages, and you want to be ready for them.
In that sense, the ease with which the No 2 seed defeated Blaz Rola in Wednesday’s second round, losing only two games, was unsatisfactory. Murray will welcome a tougher work-out today, but will trust in his first-hand knowledge of his opponent to ensure it does not become too demanding.