Australian Open: Things looking up for Andy Murray Down Under

The Scot’s winning blend of clinical and flamboyant tennis in his victory over Llodra bodes well for his Open ambitions

Ivan Lendl must have been proud. It was hard to tell, mind you, as old Stone Face is not one for showing emotion on court, but he must have been chuffed to bits.

Andy Murray, his new pupil, had just played a blinder to beat Michael Llodra 6-4, 6-2, 6-0 in one hour and 49 minutes of showcase tennis. For a set and a half, Murray had to play extremely well to beat the flashy, serve-and-volleying Frenchman and then, for another set and half, he had the time of his life playing exhibition stuff as the two men matched outrageous winner with outrageous winner.

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Safely into the fourth round, the world No.4 is relaxing into his role as a pretender to the title and by the time he was two sets to the good against the likeable lunatic Llodra, he was playing with the controlled aggression that Lendl demands but also with the flair and enjoyment that marks some of Murray’s more impressive performances. By the end, he was smiling, laughing and on occasion, having a joke with his foe. It may have been very unLendl-like, but it did not matter. Murray was getting the job done – the fun was just a by-product of an excellent performance.

When Lendl was ruling the world of men’s tennis, he never let up. Opponents were not just there to be beaten, they were there to be crushed. If he could flatten someone in the early rounds, Lendl would leap at the chance – he was the boss and he wanted everyone to know it, to remember it and to be afraid of it. Now he is instilling that same bullying mentality into Murray and for all that the Scot was enjoying himself, he was also making sure that Llodra knew his place.

At the start of each set, Murray went for the jugular. Breaking serve early in each set, he forced the Frenchman to play catch-up – and with the way the No.4 seed was moving yesterday, no- one would have had a hope of keeping pace with him.

“My movement was way better than the first two matches,” Murray said. “I moved great tonight. That’s a good sign for me because when I move well, the rest of my game goes well. That was the most pleasing thing for me about tonight.

“There are certain things that change as the tournament goes on. The first round is a bit tight and not easy to enjoy yourself, and for me I feel if you are laughing and joking around and you are two sets up, then not everyone takes that well. Tonight, because he was having a bit of fun, then I am open to that. But most of the time you have to get your game face on and I’m 99 per cent sure that in the next round there won’t be many laughs and joking around because [Mikhail] Kukushkin is very workmanlike and you just have to do a job.”

Kukushkin was the icing on yesterday’s cake. Instead of playing the 14th seed, Gael Monfils, Murray will face the world No.92 from Kazakhstan. Kukushkin took more than three-and-a-half hours to beat the flaky Frenchman 6-2, 7-5, 5-7, 1-6, 6-4 and was feeling a bit the worse the for wear by the end of it.

For two sets, Monfils looked to be on the verge of pulling out with a back problem and then, suddenly, he rallied and almost pulled off a remarkable comeback. But after surviving a rollercoaster like that, Kukushkin looked knackered.

He has never made it beyond the second round of a major tournament before and now he finds himself in the second week of the Open and playing one of the contenders for the trophy. Having given Murray a thorough three-set workout at the Brisbane event three weeks ago – it was Murray’s first match of the season – he knows what to expect from the Scot, but he also knows that Murray in a grand slam is a very different proposition from when he’s shaking off the rust after the Christmas break.

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“It’s a grand slam, it’s fourth round,” he said. “The top players, they want to go as far as possible and they will play their best tennis. So, of course, if you play against Andy Murray, it’s tough to play. But we just played in Brisbane three weeks ago. I had some chances in this match. And I just will try to stay positive, I will try to just enjoy this moment in my career and I will just again try to show my best tennis.”

Kukushkin, though, has a secret weapon – his wife, Anastasia Ulikhina. A former player, she retired in her teens through injury but has now qualified as a coach and travels full-time with her husband.

“For me, it’s a great relationship,” Kukushkin said. “She is helping me with everything: with tactic, with tennis, with my technique and also we do a lot of work together on my athletic preparation. And I think if you look at my results, it’s good relationship. Of course, she is my wife so she don’t want to take from me money; she is interested only on my results.”

Alas for Kukushkin, the Murray-Lendl partnership is also only interested in results and they have set their sights on the main prize here. And as Murray pointed out: “You don’t give out trophies for playing well in the second or third round of Grand Slams, you need to play your best at the end.”

Murray’s performance yesterday was impressive and it was fun but he knows the real work starts now. And Lendl will be delighted by that.