Can he win it? Of course he can. Will he win it? Andy Murray looks into the middle distance, clear-eyed and relaxed. Tomorrow he will start his 11th Australian Open as the second seed and the second-best player on the planet. Will he win it? “It’s definitely possible,” he says with no hint of nerves of anxiety.
In the past six years, he has reached the final in Melbourne four times only to be beaten by Roger Federer in 2010 and Novak Djokovic thereafter. His record in the Australian sun is by far the best on his CV and yet he has never claimed the title. He has had a couple of surprising losses – going out in the first round against Jo Wilfried Tsonga in 2008 and to Fernando Verdasco the following year in the fourth round – but this is where he plays some of his best tennis.
So, the Australian Open is unfinished business, then? Murray is not so sure but he is certain that this is a trophy he desperately wants to have in his collection.
“It is a tournament I would love to win,” he said. “I don’t deserve to win it more than any other tournament but I do feel that this is the slam where I have played consistently my best tennis over the years.
“In a lot of the matches that I have lost here, I have also played some really good tennis as well. I haven’t often played a bad match here. When I lost against Verdasco and Tsonga when I was much younger, both of them had great tournaments. Verdasco had the best tournament of his life, nearly beat Rafa in the semis. And Tsonga the best slam of his life – he killed Rafa in the semis.
“At the time, when I lost to him in the first round, it was seen as being a really bad loss but, ten days later, he played great and I almost won both of those matches – they were close matches.
“I do think that this is a tournament where I play my best tennis consistently but I am going to need to do something a little bit special here if I want to win it.
“I’ve been in four finals here and obviously the goal is to win the title this year and I think it’s definitely possible. There’s no guarantees, but it’s definitely possible because I’ve been so close in the past. There’s no reason why I can’t but I’ll need to play my best – even my best ever – if I want to do it.”
Murray’s first task will be to get the better of Alexander Zverev, pictured right, the 18-year-old German who has friends in high places. Zverev, ranked No 83 in the world, has been tipped by many as a young man with a big future, although, at 6ft 6ins, he is pretty big already.
Befriended by Roger Federer and helped by Murray, he won the ATP’s Star of Tomorrow award at the end of last season. After working on his fitness with Jez Green, Murray’s former trainer, for the past couple of years, he is now hoping that his tomorrow is not too far away.
Green was the mastermind behind turning Murray from a spindly teenager into one of the fittest and strongest men on the tour. He was still working with the Scot when Zverev asked if he would be able to help a young German lad with big ambitions but very few muscles.
Green was game for the challenge and Murray was happy to let one of his team help a young up and comer. Zverev will not forget such generosity in a hurry.
“I’m still very thankful for that,” Zverev said. “Of course, Andy could have said ‘no, I don’t want you to work with any other player’ but him allowing that and him seeing that I could be really good and that Jez could help me is something really special. I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why I’m top 100 now because I started to really feel stronger and get stronger with Jez there and he’s helped me a lot.
“Last year – 2014 – I had my first real off-season and the beginning of 2015 I really didn’t win a lot of matches. I didn’t win an ATP match till Miami.
“I got stronger and fitter but I didn’t know how to handle it. I was moving better, I was feeling better but I did not know how to handle that strength because I wasn’t used to it and never had it before.
“That had a lot of impact at the beginning but now I am getting used to it and it is something that is normal for me. At the beginning it was a big change but now it helps me.”
Murray got the chance to see just how it has helped his young rival a couple of weeks ago at the Hopman Cup. Murray won in straight sets and older, more experienced and physically stronger, he ought to do so again tomorrow. But he knows that Green will be honing Zverev for bigger challenges in the future.
“Jez is obviously experienced in working with a young player coming through after working with me,” Murray said. “And that can obviously always help anytime you have been through that with another player: you can learn from our mistakes. Also learn from the things that worked positively, as well. But me and Zverev are completely different builds – I think he is still growing, it seems that way anyway. He is a big boy and I don’t think it is an easy job to be his physical trainer in that situation.”
Zverev, too, knows that he is not the finished article yet but, along with Nick Kyrgios, Thanasi Kokkinakis and Borna Coric, he is part of the new generation trying to take over from the established stars. Unfortunately for him, the big names of today have no intention of giving up their day jobs any time soon.
“We all know that we’re not there yet,” he said, “and we all know that we’re going to have to work really hard to get there and we see how all the other players are still trying to improve to keep us away from them. Everybody knows that Novak, with the years, gets better and better. Andy plays really great tennis right now so they are all trying to work really hard to keep us away from the top and keep it to themselves.”
Federer, too, has taken an interest in Zverev’s progress and has taken the German under his wing. The two men practised together on Saturday and the student was planning on asking the master for a few tips on how to beat the world No 2.
“He can probably help me a bit with how he sees my game and how he sees what I can hurt Andy with and stuff like that,” Zverev said. “For some reason, Roger quite likes me. The first time I hit with him was in Cincinnati. It was quite funny, we hit for like 30 minutes maybe and then we just sat on court for like 45 minutes just talking to each other. Then, after that, he was always nice to me and always at the tournaments communicating with me quite well.”
But as the tournament begins, the top men will have no more time for social niceties. Murray, like Federer, Djokovic and Nadal, is here to win.
And, as he says, there are no guarantees, but winning is a definite possibility.