Parenthood puts things puts things in focus for Andy Murray
Andy Murray has not yet told his daughter that she almost cost him his place at the Australian Open last year (she is only 11 months old so it is a little soon to be discussing such things with her).
But as the world No.1 prepared for his opening match tomorrow against Illya Marchenko of Ukraine, he could not quite believe the difference between the Andy Murray of 2016 and now.
A year ago, he was in turn excited about impending fatherhood and then nervous that he might miss the big moment. His wife, Kim, was just three weeks away from giving birth and he was 11,000 miles and 11 time zones away on the other side of the world.
And if his life was fraught enough at that point, his father-in-law Nigel Sears collapsed on the middle Saturday of the tournament and was rushed to hospital. Fortunately, it turned out to be no more than food poisoning but it was another thing for Murray to worry about. He just wanted to make sure that Sears was all right and then go home to be with his soon-to-be-expanded family.
This year, though, he is back in Melbourne with his wife and daughter and he could not be happier: he is the world No.1, he is feeling fitter and stronger than ever before and he is the man to beat. Life could not be any more different.
“It was a tough tournament,” Murray said. “The situation with Kim and the baby coming was tough. Then with what happened with Nigel during the event made it really kind of awkward because there were times where I was thinking ‘I want to go home’. But then also my father-in-law was here and in hospital. It was, like, ‘I want to be at home for the birth, but then I’m not just going to sort of leave whilst my father-in-law is also in hospital’. But I certainly didn’t expect to be back here in the position I am now.
“Becoming a parent, I did expect that to be life-changing from what everyone had told me.
“Obviously you never know till it happens to you but I did expect it to be pretty big and it has had a big impact on my career. But I certainly didn’t expect to be coming back as world No.1 this year.”
The arrival of Sophia turned Murray’s life upside down – in a good way. Sleepless nights and learning the dark arts of nappy changing aside, Murray has grown as a player and as a person since he became a father and that, in turn, has helped him dominate the tennis circuit.
“I just think being a parent helps take your mind away from tennis. Like last year, before I had a kid, if I had a bad practice I would be annoyed about it for the rest of the day and I’d be thinking about it and worrying that I’m not playing well and I need to improve so many things and stressing about it.
“Now after my practice when I see my family and spend time with them I kind of park it. I just don’t worry as much as I did before and I definitely think that helps with your stability and consistency throughout the year.”
Having got himself to the No.1 spot in the rankings, it would not have been beyond the realms of possibility to think that Murray might pause for a while: when you get to the top, there is nowhere else to go.
But that is not how he got himself to No.1 and it certainly will not help him stay there.
While other players may have struggled to find new goals to set for themselves, Murray has picked the brains of his coach, Ivan Lendl. How does he stay at the top? How can he improve? Where does he go from here? Lendl spent 270 weeks at the top of the heap; he knows what it takes to be the best and to stay the best.
“I do think it is a mindset thing,” Murray said, “because I think it could be quite easy that once you get to No.1 that you think, ‘well, actually, I just need to keep doing what I am doing.
“The reality is, in sport, that things obviously keep moving on, the game will get better, I’ll obviously get older, the young guys will continue to improve, and also Novak [Djokovic] and Roger [Federer] and Stan [Wawrinka] and Rafa [Nadal] and all the guys at the top are still going to be wanting to get there.
“So that’s why having someone like Ivan on my team who has been in that position before and knows what that’s like has been important. I need to continue to improve.
“I for sure need to keep working hard.
“I need to keep getting better and try to improve my game. Any weaknesses that are in my game, to try to get rid of them.”
Marchenko, the world No.93, may not be able to find any weaknesses in Murray’s defences. They played once before, in 2011, at the Australian Open and the Ukrainian never got so much as a sniff of a chance much less a set. But Murray is still not taking Marchenko lightly.
“I saw him playing a bit at the US Open,” Murray said. “He had a good run there a few months ago. Also had a very tight match with Wawrinka there.
“He’s not easy. He fights very hard. He’s got a great attitude. Plays predominantly from the back of the court and moves well. He doesn’t give you too many free points.
“I’ve only played him once. I’ve never practised with him. And that match, it was a long time ago.”
But having lost only four matches since the French Open last June, the Scot is confident and he is remarkably relaxed. He feels no extra pressure as the top seed and he is ready to get to work. He may have lost five finals at Melbourne Park – four of them to Djokovic – but nothing can dent his belief that the title is there to be won.
“I obviously feel pretty confident after the way that last season finished,” Murray said.
“I do love it here. I love the conditions. I have played really well here over the years, and just haven’t managed to obviously get over the final hurdle.
“But I think I’m in a decent position, for sure, to do it. I think I have a chance to win here. Obviously nothing’s guaranteed. But, yeah, why not? I’m playing well. Practice has been good. I feel healthy. I’ll give it a good shot.”
And if he wins, he might just tell Sophia all about it. She will be one of the reasons why he is the best player in the world, after all.