Andy Murray has reached more finals at the Australian Open than at any other Grand Slam tournament, but as the world No 4 prepared to head Down Under he admitted here that it would be “unrealistic” to expect to win the title in Melbourne later this month. The tournament starts in just 10 days’ time.
More than three months after undergoing surgery in the hope of curing a long-standing back problem, Murray will go into his first major test of the year having played only two competitive singles matches since starting his comeback.
While there was every indication here that the operation will eventually give him a new lease of life after nearly two years of coping with pain and discomfort, the 26-year-old Scot’s defeat to Florian Mayer in the second round of the Qatar ExxonMobile Open was a setback in terms of his preparations for the year’s opening Grand Slam event.
Nevertheless, the confidence Murray can derive from his past form at Melbourne Park – in his last four appearances he has made the final three times and the semi-finals on the other occasion – means that he is not ruling out another productive fortnight Down Under.
“It’s tough to gauge,” Murray said. “The way I was playing for half the match against Mayer I would be very happy with, but being able to maintain that for five sets is tricky. Having a day off between matches would help me and also I’m going to get fitter by playing matches, so there’s a possibility that if I can get through a couple of rounds I’ll start to feel better as the tournament goes on. My body will start to feel better.
“But in terms of expectations I have no idea, to be honest. I wouldn’t like to say whether I’d be happy reaching the second week, or winning it, or whatever. I’ll have to see how the next 10 days or so go. You can get a lot done in that time.”
Murray will link up in Melbourne with his coach, Ivan Lendl, who was due to leave for Australia on Thursday. Lendl, who worked with Murray at his “boot camp” in Miami last month, had been intending to play some golf this weekend but may need to revise his plans following his charge’s early exit here. Murray is likely to play at least one match at the Kooyong exhibition event in Melbourne next week and expects to spend most of his time on the practice court playing games and sets.
“That’s one thing I could have maybe done a bit more when I was over in Miami, but I didn’t take more than one day off at a time and I trained for about 10 and a half weeks, so by the end of the training block I wasn’t fresh,” Murray said. “I was tired. Playing points and sets is the hardest part of what we do. The points and stuff I got at the end of the training block weren’t particularly good because I was fatigued. That kind of showed against Mayer. Towards the end of the second set and the beginning of the third, my intensity definitely dropped a bit – and you can’t do that against these guys.”
He added: “I wouldn’t expect to win the Australian Open. I’m just saying that I know that I’ve trained hard and physically I’ve done a lot of good work. But here was a perfect example of how you can be the fittest guy in the world but if you don’t play matches it’s completely different to anything we do in the gym or anything like that. It would be unrealistic to expect to win the Australian Open, but I may start to feel better if I can get through a match or two.
“I felt quick on the court at the beginning of the match against Mayer. I felt like I hit the ball cleanly. I returned well. I returned very well in the two doubles matches I played here. I guess it’s just about getting match stamina. Unfortunately I’m not going to be able to play four or five matches between now and Melbourne. It’s a shame, but that’s the way it is.”
While the sun has shone brightly during the day here this week, the weather has been chilly in the evenings, which has left Murray looking forward to the warmth of an Australian summer.
“I’ve played well in Melbourne – I like the courts and I feel comfortable there,” he said. “The conditions there are good for me. When you’re coming back from surgery the tendency is for things to stiffen up. If it’s causing you pain that’s a different story, but you will tend to stiffen up if you’re in cold conditions, so being out in the heat will definitely help. It’s good to be in warm weather. Miami helped me. I was able to train better because of that. So I look forward to getting back into the heat.”
A measure of Murray’s satisfaction with his progress is the fact that he did not feel the need to book a first-class ticket for the 14-hour flight from here to Melbourne. “I normally travel business class,” he said. “I’ve only paid for a first-class seat once. Business class is normally fine.”
Nevertheless, Mark Bender, who has become Murray’s regular physiotherapist, will be a particularly important figure in the coming weeks. “You want to be surrounded by the best people and I think he’s been excellent,” Murray said. “He’s been great through this rehab process. It’s very important that everyone communicates properly just now. The rest of [my entourage] need to take on board what I say and how I’m feeling and also what Mark is suggesting, because if they don’t, then things can go wrong pretty quickly.”
It may well be that Murray will need considerably more time to recover his best form, but at least he heads to Australia knowing that he has successfully negotiated the first part of his comeback.
“This week was a good experience for me,” he said. “It’s quite stressful playing your first match [back]. Doing all the training stuff is great, but then when you actually go out to play a match again in front of crowds and when you haven’t done it for a while you’re a little bit nervous and it’s different. It feels like a new experience again. So just getting back on the court again is good for me. I’ll start to feel more comfortable the more matches I play.”