IT IS a new year, he has a new team – and a new fiancée – and the Australian Open is lying ahead of him. But, thankfully, after the frustrations of 2014, Andy Murray feels like life has gone back to the good old days.
For the first time in more than a year, Murray feels as if he is on a level playing field with his nearest rivals. He is as fit as a flea, his off-season training went well and he and Heather Watson warmed up for the Open by coming within a sniff of the final of the Hopman Cup, the round-robin team competition, in Perth. And, as everyone prepares for the start of the Open on Monday, Murray is feeling as good as anyone in Melbourne and even better than he was when he reached three finals between 2010 and 2013.
When he came to Melbourne last year, the world No 6 was making his comeback from surgery to repair a chronic back problem. That return took months to gather momentum and, while he finished the year with three titles in five weeks and a ticket to the ATP World Tour Finals, his last job before heading off for the Christmas break was to dispense with the services of Dani Vallverdu, his friend and assistant coach and Jez Green, his fitness trainer. As Murray was keen to point out at the time, it had not been a bad year but even he knew that it could have been better for all sorts of reasons.
“The atmosphere in the team just now is very good,” Murray said, looking relaxed and at ease with himself. “Everyone is pushing in the right direction: same vision, same views on what we have to do to get better. Maybe towards the end of last year, that was not the case. I had worked with Dani and Jez a long time. Sometimes these things just run their course.
“When I sat down with Dani and Jez at the end of the year it was quite clear they had different views on things and what they wanted to do. I didn’t really agree with that and that’s why things ended up changing. When you look back at the year and the last few months, I would say the atmosphere within the team wasn’t particularly good. It’s not really helpful for anyone when it’s like that. You do see when things aren’t going well and you look back and the atmosphere hasn’t been good, it affects how everybody works.”
“I feel like now I’m getting back to where I want to be on the court again. My body feels good, I feel fit, I’m moving well, I’m happy with the team I’ve got around me. Everything off the court is good too, I feel happy and often when you feel happy you perform better and that’s the case for anyone in any job. When things at home are good, the people around you are all pulling in the same direction it’s just beneficial and hopefully that will mean some good performances.”
Those good performances could move him through to a quarter final appointment with Roger Federer. Again. They met at the same stage here last year and Federer won in four sets. At the time, Murray had few expectations – it was only the seventh tour match of his comeback – but when he faced Federer again at the end of the season, he was fit and he was winning matches and titles again. And he was absolutely flattened 6-0, 6-1 by the mighty Swiss. A good performance against Federer in Melbourne would help erase that memory.
To get as far as the quarter-finals, Murray will need to beat a qualifier in the first round and then, potentially, Marinko Matosevic, Martin Klizan and Grigor Dimitrov. That would earn him another crack at Federer and should he get his revenge, he could face Rafael Nadal in the semis. After that, it could be Novak Djokovic in the final. No matter; this is a new start for Murray and he is relishing the opportunity to show that he is back to his best.
“I think I am ready to go from the first match,” he said. “I played loads of tennis at the end of last year and when I went back to practicing again, I felt good after a couple of days of hitting. Normally when I take a break at the end of the year, it takes me ten days, two weeks for my body to get used to being on the court again and running around.
“I felt good pretty early on so I was able to play a lot of tennis in the off- season. I said right after I played [Feliciano] Lopez in Abu Dhabi, often when I play my first match of the year – and it was a pretty long one – I’d wake up feeling sore and stiff but I felt absolutely fine the next day. Nothing. I had this thing with my shoulder but that was nothing to do with playing the matches. My body has felt good in all the matches. I have felt sharp from the beginning of all of them. I feel like I am ready.”
He is also ready to take the next step in his life off the court as well and on the same day that he announced his split from Vallverdu and Green, he revealed that he had just become engaged to Kim Sears, his girlfriend of nine years. The two have, apparently, set a date (although he is not willing to let on when that may be) but, while Murray is happy to take on the new responsibilities as Kim’s husband, he is not willing to try his hand as a wedding planner.
“I try to stay out of all that sort of stuff,” he said. “I only give my minor input. I just agree with Kim on most things. The only thing I will be involved in is the food. That is what I am particularly interested in. The rest is on Kim.”
If, as he believes is the case, Murray is ready to start challenging for grand slam titles again, he will not have time to worry about seating plans or whether the best man will remember to bring the rings.
Then again, an Australian Open title would pay for a few extra cases of champagne – 2015 could indeed be a brand new start for Andy Murray. And it all begins in Melbourne next week.
MURRAY’S POTENTIAL ROUTE TO FINAL
Round one: Qualifier
A double-edged sword for Murray, who will take on a player not ranked high enough to gain direct entry into the main draw, but one who will be match sharp after three wins in qualifying.
Round two: Marinko Matosevic
Australian Matosevic will have the crowd on his side in his home city, but the same could be said for his previous five appearances in the event, which all ended in a first-round defeat. Murray also won their previous two meetings without dropping a set in last year’s French Open and at Queen’s Club in 2013.
Round three: Martin Klizan
Klizan is the first seed Murray can encounter, albeit the lowest at 32. The 25-year-old from Bratislava reached the third round in Melbourne last year and climbed 77 places in the world rankings in 2014 after winning his second career title in Munich. The left-hander could pose Murray a few problems.
Round four: Grigor Dimitrov
The going gets far tougher with Murray scheduled to take on tenth seed Dimitrov in the last 16. Murray has a 4-2 winning record and won their last contest in the Paris Masters, but lost in straight sets in the quarter-finals of Wimbledon last year.
Quarter-final: Roger Federer
A repeat of last year’s quarter-final would pit Murray against the 17-time grand slam champion, who recorded the 1,000th victory of his career by winning the recent tournament in Brisbane. Federer has won the pair’s last three matches and Murray will still be smarting from the 6-0, 6-1 thrashing he suffered in the ATP World Tour Finals last year.
Semi-final: Rafael Nadal
Nadal won their most recent grand slam meeting in straight sets in the semi-finals of the French Open last year on his way to a ninth title at Roland Garros. However, Murray beat a rusty Nadal 6-2, 6-0 in an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi in January.
Final: Novak Djokovic
Djokovic won the Australian Open for three years running before his surprise defeat to eventual winner Stanislas Wawrinka in last year’s quarter-finals. The world No 1 and top seed looks to have a kind draw and it would be a major shock if he failed to advance to a fourth Melbourne final in five years.