THE draw could not have been harsher but the expectations could not be higher. With Andy Murray set to begin his Australian Open challenge tomorrow against Yuki Bhambri, a qualifier from India with a world ranking of 314, much depends on his results in the coming two weeks.
The Scot is now 27, pushing 28 which, by tennis standards, is distinctly middle-aged. He has spent the past year repairing his body after surgery and reorganising his professional life after a split with his best friend and former assistant coach, Dani Vallverdu. He is fit, he is relaxed and he feels that he is ready to do battle with the big boys again – it is now or never for the world No.6.
Those who are paid to watch and assess the form of the good and the great are watching with interest. Greg Rusedski, himself a former British No.1 and world No.4, is convinced the next 12 months are vital if Murray is to renew his membership of the Gang of Four at the top of the rankings, that elite group of players who carve up the Grand Slam circuit between them.
“This year will be the defining year for Andy,” Rusedski said. “I think 2015 will tell us if he will ever win a major again. If he’s going to come out and win this tournament, he needs to be aggressive on the second serve, take on the forehand when it’s there to be hit, and use the backhand up the line. If he does those things he has a real shot.
“Andy has an incredible sense of what he needs to do at the big moments in the big matches which is so important. Amélie Mauresmo would have had all of the off-season to work on the areas of Murray’s game that needed working on and physically he looks very, very well.”
Unfortunately, if Murray is to get back into the grand slam winners’ cartel, he will have to beat the three other members of the group – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic (in that order) – to do it. The first week of the Australian Open looks relatively quiet for the Scot but, once he gets past the first weekend, he will have to play eyeballs out in every round. But no matter how difficult the challenge appears, Rusedski is confident that Murray is the man to accomplish it.
“Andy’s form leading into these championships has been great but he has the toughest draw in the tournament,” Rusedski said. “The first week looks good but he has a very rough second week.
“He looks in good form, he looks in good shape but he will have to beat two of the top players back-to-back to win the tournament and to do that he has to be physically and mentally at his very best.
“However, I think he has a chance of winning the tournament. His performance in Abu Dhabi, where he absolutely destroyed Rafael Nadal in two sets, was the best I’ve seen him play in a long time and he played well in the Hopman Cup, too.
“It’s a good opportunity to see where Andy really is at the moment because he’s had tough off-season training and his back doesn’t seem to be a problem at the moment. He has a chance of winning the tournament but he has to do it the hard way – it’s a brutal draw.”
Murray is fully aware of just how hard it will be to lift the trophy in Melbourne but he is looking fit, he is sounding happier than he has for months and he is pleased with his work over the Christmas break.
Three weeks of hard graft under the direction of Mauresmo has given him a great launchpad for the new season – now he just has to put all he has learned and worked on into action to see whether he can compete with the very best again.
“It’s obviously a very difficult draw,” Murray said. “It’s very hard to comment on it. If you have to play all of those players, obviously it’s going to be extremely difficult to come through that. I’m aware of that. That’s fine. But, often in these events, there are upsets. And then you just have to wait and see who you’re playing in each round because it doesn’t always work out as simply as that. I’m sure Rafa just now, if you said to him ‘a semi-final spot’, he’d be very happy with that coming off a tough injury [a wrist injury followed by an appendix operation]. But, yeah, it will be interesting to see how it goes. But definitely with those names in my draw, it’s very challenging.”
At least Murray will not be alone as he digs in for battle. For the first time since 2002, there are three British men in the main draw. James Ward earned his place by virtue of his ranking (he reached a career high of 101 two weeks ago) and Kyle Edmund fought his way past Dane Propoggia 6-7, 6-4, 9-7 in the final round of the qualifying competition yesterday and will now play Steve Johnson, the world No.39, from America. Liam Broady just missed the cut, losing to Michael Russell 7-5, 6-3 yesterday.
Edmund was jumping for joy around the court when his opponent missed his final volley. He has long been tipped as Britain’s brightest young talent but he has had a difficult time of it in the last few months. He took the bold decision to dispense with the services of Rusedski as his coach back in October but, after spending part of the Christmas break working with Murray out in Miami, he feels he is making progress again. And having Andy Murray cheering you on from the sidelines does wonders for a bloke’s confidence.
Edmund said: “He has given me the opportunity to train with him the last two years in the off-season and in-between I have hit with him.
“He really wants me and Liam to do well. He is texting us and saying: ‘Well done and best of luck’. It is a nice feeling when someone like that wants you to do well.”
Murray was fulfilling his usual pre-tournament commitments while Edmund was playing but he took a break from practice, media sessions and TV interviews to watch the last few games and took an almost fatherly pride in his success.
“I’m very pleased for Kyle,” Murray said. “It’s good to see that Liam is doing very well, too. They both work very hard. When you see someone or people putting in the effort, it’s nice to see them get the rewards. So it’s good that both of them are heading in the right direction.”
With three losing finals behind him in Australia, Murray knows exactly which direction he needs to take in order to succeed. Settling the personnel in his team was a huge step towards his goal of getting back to the top – when everyone is happy and working together, the results come a good deal faster – while the conditions at Melbourne Park seem to bring the best from him.
“I do like the conditions here,” Murray said. “And then, normally, if you put in good work in the off-season and work hard, you’re going to get good rewards at the beginning of the year. I feel like the effort and work that I put in in December has helped me here.
“The changes in the team have been, in my opinion, positive. When things aren’t working well, there’s not a positive atmosphere, it’s not good for anybody. So when that changes and everyone’s working together, that makes things better. So the last two months for me so far have been very, very good.”
If the next two weeks can be just as good for Murray, this really could be the Scot’s defining season.