It was four years ago that Roger Federer described the Australian Open as "the Happy Slam". He was referring to the fact that most players arrive at the first Grand Slam event of the year full of optimism for the season ahead, free of injuries, relaxed after a winter break and glad to bask in the southern hemisphere sunshine. Twenty-four hours later, 150 people were ejected from Melbourne Park on the first day of the tournament as scuffles broke out between well-fuelled young men wearing football shirts of the Croatian, Serbian and Greek national teams.
In a sense, the tournament was simply living up to its reputation as one of the least predictable fortnights of the tennis year. With no patterns of form established at the start of the season, lesser lights can dazzle their big-name opponents here. Three of the last seven Australian Opens have featured unseeded men's finalists in Marat Safin, Marcos Baghdatis and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Andy Murray's form here has been similarly difficult to predict. He has twice gone out in the first round, winning only seven games against Juan Ignacio Chela on his much-hyped debut five years ago, and losing in four sets to Tsonga two years later, but he has also played superbly on these courts. A five-set thriller in the fourth round against Rafael Nadal four years ago proved to the Scot that he had it in him to live with the very best, while he played the finest tennis of his career to reach last year's final before losing in three tight sets to Roger Federer.
"I have very good memories from here," Murray said yesterday during a break from his preparations for the tournament, which begins tomorrow. "I have some bad ones as well. I've had a couple of very tough losses here in the past. Obviously last year I played some of the best tennis of my life throughout the tournament. I do always enjoy playing here. I think it's a fun place for all the players to come to. Everything's incredibly easy. I always enjoy coming back."
Does the tournament's place in the calendar mean that it can be hard to assess even a player's own form? "You have to trust the training that you've done and believe in it," Murray said. "But you won't really have played a big, big match for quite a long time. No one's played that many matches. The conditions are very different here to what we were playing right at the end of the year in the indoor tournaments and no one ever really knows exactly how you're going to play."
He added: "You just have to try and focus on every match and not get too far ahead of yourself, because you're probably not going to play your best right at the beginning."
Having fallen last week to No 5 in the world rankings, Murray could have been facing a possible meeting with Nadal or Federer as early as the quarter-finals, but the draw has been relativelykind to him. In the last eight he is seeded to meet Sweden's Robin Soderling, the man who took his place at No4 by winning the Brisbane tournament last weekend, while he cannot meet Nadal or Federer before the semi-finals and final respectively.
Murray, however, dismisses the relevance of the rankings. "To be honest I don't really care," he said of his recentslip down the ladder. "Last year, I was seeded No 5 here and made it to the final. I've been seeded No 4 at Slams and lost in the third round.
"I don't think it really makes a whole lot of difference where you're seeded. You have to play one of the top guys maybe a round earlier, but all of those guys are incredibly difficult to beat. It wasn't something that I was worried about or thinking about when the draw was getting done."
Murray, moreover, always stresses the importance of not looking beyond his next match. This time his first-round opponent is Slovakia's Karol Beck, the world No 104, who has never recaptured the promise he had shown beforeserving a two-year suspension, imposed in 2006, after failing a drugs test for a banned substance, clenbuterol.
"It will be a tough match," Murray said. "He's been around a long time. I think he plays like a lot of the Slovak and Czech players. He's a very flat hitterof the ball. He's talented. He's been a very good player in the past."
Last year had its share of disappointments for Murray, including losses to Tomas Berdych and Stanislas Wawrinka in two of the Grand Slam tournaments and a woeful run of results in the spring, but he feels he is a better player as a consequence.
"Experience obviously helps," he said. "I played quite a lot of big matcheslast year. I went through some very tough patches as well, especially after the Aussie Open. That was something I had to come back from and I learned from, so I think I'm probably in a better place mentally. Physically I've worked hard again, so physically I should be good.
"In terms of my game, I work on things a lot in practice, things that are hopefully going to improve my game. Then you just need to go out there and try to put them into the matches when you get the chance."
Practice has been difficult for everyone over the last week due to the unusually wet weather, though the top players have an advantage in that they are given preferential treatment when it comes to allocating time on the two main show courts, which both have retractable roofs. Murray has practised with Novak Djokovic, as he has on a number of occasions in recent times, although he rejected a suggestion that the 23-year-olds have been working together to try to close the gap on the game's big two.
"You practise with one of the other guys that are ranked high, especially when the weather's been bad, as it's a lot easier to get practice courts," he said. "I haven't practised with Novak to try to beat Roger and Rafa, but he's obviously a great person to practise with. He's No3 in the world and an incredibly tough player."
Although Murray acknowledged that Federer and Nadal would start as favourites this week, he stressed that there were a number of players capable of beating both of them. Murray himself has won eight of his 14 meetings with Federer and four of his last eight matches against Nadal. He was the only player to beat Nadal in a Grand Slam tournament last year, the Spaniard having retired with a knee injury in their quarter-final here when he was two sets and 3-0 down.
Murray has repeated the preparations which put him in such good shape at the start of last year. Having spent December at his winter training camp in Miami, he gave himself a fortnight to acclimatise to the conditions Down Under by playing in the Hopman Cup in Perth in the first week of the new season. Although the mixed-team event is played indoors, Murray trained outdoors in temperatures of up to 40C on non-match days.
In comparison with those who did not travel to the southern hemisphere until last week and have yet to experience anything like the intense heat that can prevail here, Murray should be particularly well prepared.
Having played so well here 12 months ago, did Murray think that this might be the tournament where he would finally win his first Grand Slam title? "I have no idea," he said. "I don't think any of the players do. I'm focusing on my first match. I've got a tough opponent in the first round. That's what I'm focusing on just now: trying to win my first match."
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Murray's Australian Open record
2006 (1st round): Lost 6-1 6-3 6-3 to Juan Ignacio Chela (Argentina)
2007 (4th round): Lost 6-7 6-4 4-6 6-3 6-1 to Rafael Nadal (Spain)
Had beaten Spaniards Alberto Martin and Fernando Verdasco before gaining revenge on Chela in third round.
2008 (1st round): Lost 7-5 6-4 0-6 7-6 to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (France)
2009 (4th round): Lost 2-6 6-1 1-6 6-3 6-4 to Verdasco
Had beaten Andrei Pavel, Marcel Granollers and Jurgen Melzer to reach fourth round.
2010 (Final): Lost 6-3 6-4 7-6 to Roger Federer (Switzerland)
Had beaten Kevin Anderson, Marc Gicquel, Florent Serra, John Isner, Nadal and Marin Cilic to reach final.