It has been three months since Andy Murray became a father, three months in which he has had his world turned upside down by the arrival of young Sophia and all the new responsibilities that brings, and three months in which he has tried to rediscover his focus and concentration when he has been back at work.
At last, though, the Scot thinks he has cracked it. Back in Spain for the defence of his Mutua Madrid Open title, he is fighting fit and better prepared than ever to make a serious challenge for the silverware. Murray, it seems, is himself again.
Last month, there were glimpses of the Scot’s clay- court form of last season as he reached the semi-finals in Monte Carlo (and absolutely clobbered Milos Raonic to get there), and since then Murray has been testing himself against the best in the world to hone his game and get ready for this week and the big push on to the French Open at the end of the month.
Practising in Majorca with Rafael Nadal and Raonic last week, he has been pitting his wits against Novak Djokovic on the practice courts since he arrived in the Spanish capital – and it bodes well for tonight’s opening match against Radek Stepanek, who beat Vasek Pospisil 6-1, 6-7, 6-4 last night.
“I think what I did after Monte Carlo was smart,” Murray said. “I took four or five days off where I didn’t do much at all and then went and prepared against the best players in Majorca. I trained hard for five or six days before coming here and again, trying to practise with the best players.
“It went really well. I practised with Milos Raonic for a couple days and practised with Rafa for a couple days. I was going to go to Barcelona originally. That’s where I went last year to train.
“But then, obviously, the best practice you can get, for me, was to go there and get to practise with two guys that are in the top ten and one of them is probably the best clay-court player of all time. That was the best practice and preparation I could get, so that was why I decided to go there.
“I definitely feel better prepared here than going into Monte Carlo and Indian Wells. I’ve prepared well for this one.”
As the second-best player in the world, Murray could be forgiven for wanting to keep his powder dry and keeping his practice routines a secret from the big names whom he is going to have to beat in semi and final matches if he wants to win another title on the red dirt. But the likes of Djokovic and Nadal are the very best in business on this surface and Murray believes he can only learn from them.
“Getting to practise with the best player in the world is great preparation for me,” he said. “I’ve had some good practices against the best players. That’s very important. I don’t get that when I’m back home, so I need to make the most of it when I’m at these events.”
Roger Federer’s withdrawal from the Madrid event yesterday – he has a bad back – has eased Nadal’s path to the semi-finals where Murray hopes to be waiting for him. And the Scot needs to beat Nadal and reach the final if he is to stop Federer from overtaking him for the No 2 ranking slot. Even then, he will only be ahead by a whisker with everything to play for next week at the Rome Masters. After winning consecutive clay-court titles in Munich and Madrid last year, the pressures on Murray in this part of the season are very different now.
“I think expectations for me have changed because of last year,” he said. “I won on the clay last year which was good, but it was more the way I played. I played very well. Even in Monte Carlo [last month], the match against Raonic [in the quarter-finals] and also for large parts the match against Rafa in Monte-Carlo was very good.
“That gives me belief, but also I then expect to play better than I maybe did in the past. I don’t see any reason why I can’t maintain that level and give myself a chance in the next few events, obviously with the French Open being the big one at the end of this stretch. I feel good about that.”