Australian Open: Andy Murray’s game will need to improve to challenge for the title

Andy Murray. Picture: Getty
Andy Murray. Picture: Getty
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ALL in all, Andy Murray is feeling pleased. As the Australian Open reaches its midway point, he reckons he deserves a decent mark on his report card. Three matches won, not a set dropped and plenty of gas left in the tank. Even Ivan Lendl must be quite chuffed about that sort of performance.

Even if Murray was not at his brightest and best yesterday, he was still far too good for poor little Ricardas Berankis. The Lithuanian, who sits at No.110 in the world pecking order, hits the ball cleanly and takes it early but, at 5ft 9in, he cannot overpower the bigger men on the tour.

He has practised with Murray many times and there are few on-court secrets between the two men. Murray knew that he had more than enough firepower to ease into the fourth round and Berankis knew that he could not live with the US Open champion. He made Murray run about a bit, but Berankis was soon sent on his way 6-3, 6-4, 7-5.

“I think in terms of the results, it’s nine or ten out of ten for the first week,” Murray said, “because I haven’t had any long matches and, especially on the day when it was extremely hot, it was a quick match. It was efficient in terms of the way I’m playing. I’d like to play better, that’s for sure, I don’t know exactly how much better I need to play or how well I’m playing right now, but I’ll certainly need to improve in the second week if I want to win it.”

And winning matters to Murray at the moment. It is not that he is concerned about chasing history – no man has won his debut grand slam title and then gone on to win the next major trophy – it is more that he wants to do his best for his pal, Ross Hutchins. Hutchins, ranked No.29 in the world in doubles, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the end of December and, as the Australian Open began, he was starting his first round of chemotherapy back in London.

When Murray won the title in Brisbane at the start of the year, he dedicated the victory to Hutchins and while, he would not go as far as dedicating yesterday’s win to his friend, he wants to keep the victories coming for Hutchins’s sake.

“I speak to him most days,” Murray said, “and, yeah, I’ll continue to fight as hard as I can this week to give him something to support and smile about.”

To keep his copybook blot-free, he will need to tidy up his shot-making in the coming week, that is certain, but yesterday’s scratchy performance was nothing to worry about.

A few days ago, he thought practice was going swimmingly but then, on Friday, his timing went to pot. Not that he is too worried. More importantly, Sergeant Major Lendl is not fretting either.

“He knows that practice days are kind of irrelevant,” Murray explained. “It’s match-days that count. So long as you fire your body up and you move your feet properly and concentrate during the practice, it doesn’t matter how you hit the ball.

“The more matches you play on the courts, you’re going to feel better, and it’s just good having someone like him to re-emphasise those points on the practice days. Like yesterday, where we practised was really, really windy, so you naturally aren’t going to hit the ball as well but it can be frustrating, so he can just remind you of those things and it helps.”

Everything about Murray is more relaxed, more experienced and more at ease since he won the US Open. At first he was surprised by just how relaxed he was before the tournament began, but then the first-match nerves kicked in right on schedule and everything went back to normal.

But, as the tournament progresses, the world No.3 thinks that the memories of those two weeks in New York last September will stand him in good stead.

“I was certainly very nervous before the first match and, when the conditions are like they were before the second match, you’re also going be nervous because anything can happen on days like that.

“I’d say it feels the same as other slams. I just hope that maybe in the second week I’ll feel a bit more comfortable and a bit more experienced having won a slam and won the big matches, that will help.”

Experience will certainly help in his next match – he has beaten Gilles Simon nine times in a row since 2008 and knows better than most what it takes to overcome the Frenchman. And, this time around, Murray’s task might be a little easier after Simon took four hours and 43 minutes to beat his friend and countryman, Gael Monfils 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 1-6, 8-6 on Saturday night.

By the time Simon had staggered over the finish line, cramping and running on empty, it was gone 12:30am and he looked utterly spent. Murray, meanwhile, had been safely tucked up in bed for hours.

“It helps, obviously, if you have a good record against players,” Murray said. “It’ll give you confidence but you need to make sure that you’re not over-confident, that you stick to your gameplan and do the things that have worked well against him in the past. He’s the sort of guy that you need to make sure you’re extremely patient against because if you’re not, he’ll force you into making mistakes and going for too much.”

Judging by the look on Simon’s exhausted face on Saturday night, he will be lucky to force the skin off custard on Monday. There is every chance that Murray’s second week will pick up where the first left off.