Andy Murray begins his Australian Open campaign in the early hours of Monday morning and we take a look at the key factors in his bid for Melbourne glory:
• A tougher than ever field
Murray should take care of Indian qualifier Yuki Bhambri in round one, but after that his draw could get complicated. Martin Klizan is his potential round three opponent and the Slovak shouldn’t be taken lightly. The young lefty defeated Rafael Nadal last year and belts the ball at a fair rate of knots. Get past him and it’s even harder. Grigor Dimitrov and Roger Federer are both in his side of the draw and he’d probably need to beat both of them to make the final. Dimitrov dumped him out of Wimbledon last year and Federer defeated him in last year’s Australian Open. Then, of course, there’s that 6-0, 6-1 beating that the Swiss dished out to him at the O2 back in November. If he can make it to the final, then it’s likely Novak Djokovic stands in his way. Djokovic tends to save his best tennis for Melbourne and will have a point to prove after his surprise exit in the quarter-finals last year. Murray will have to be at his best to chisel a path through to the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup.
• A more harmonious team
Murray split with long-time side-kicks Dani Vallverdu and Jez Green in the off-season, with the consensus being that they didn’t get along with new coach Amelie Mauresmo. In his pre-tournament media briefings, Murray hinted that he expected his camp to function better now that everyone is pulling in the same direction. “The atmosphere in the team just now is very good,” Murray said. “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.” Stability behind the scenes is a key component of any Slam-winning player’s campaign and Murray appears to have that taken care of.
• Full fitness
Tennis is littered with sob-stories of players never getting back to their best after major surgery. Murray will hope that his name isn’t added to that list. The 27-year-old underwent a major back operation at the end of 2013 season and that was one of the main reasons why the first part of last year was punctuated by inconsistent performances. He’s spent most of the winter training hard at his Miami base and looks in tip-top condition. Last year he came into the Australian Open with doubts over his back, but this time around he’ll have far more confidence in his body and that will count for a lot over the course of two gruelling weeks.
• Serve and backhand
Murray’s serve has always been his Achilles’ heel, but last year his normally-trusty backhand was also misfiring. Belief in his body after surgery has to be part of the latter’s faultiness, but there shouldn’t be any excuses now. One of his finest shots in 2013 as he stormed to Wimbledon glory was his backhand down the line and early indications from Abu Dhabi and the Hopman Cup were that he was striking his backhand sweeter than ever. Now for the serve. Murray has always been prone to being broken. He can serve big, but he last consistency and does have an attackable second delivery. Djokovic and Rafael Nadal pick his poor serves off at will, but with the top 100 now ballooning with excellent ball-strikers, Murray needs to pick up cheap points in best-of-five-sets matches. Murray can break some of the best servers in the game with his own return, but now he needs to make sure now more than ever that he’s a tough man to crack when stepping up to the baseline.
• Been there, done it before
Many people forget that Murray has made the final of the Australian Open three times before in 2010, 2011 and 2013. He normally plays very well in Melbourne. The surface suits his game and he’s possesses enough stamina to play through the often searing heat of day sessions as many others wilt before him. He can call upon the experience of winning Olympic gold, Wimbledon and the US Open. Many observers talk about the up-and-coming generation of Kei Nishikori, Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic, Nick Kyrgios and David Goffin, but none of them have won a major title. So much of tennis is played in the head and Murray is calmer and more experienced than ever. His form reads well in Australia and if he can get better the deeper he gets into the tournament, he has a chance of claiming his third Slam title.