Chela the chill wind of reality for Murray

Awkward Argentinian promises a test of Scot's temperament as well as his talent
Click to follow

The charge will be light in numbers, rather than ability or commitment, consisting as it does of just Tim Henman and Andy Murray, Greg Rusedski having opted to await imminent parenthood in London.

Henman will be competing in the year's first Grand Slam for the ninth time, having fought his way into the fourth round on three occasions, and his customary phlegm will have been ruffled by the sight of Dmitry Tursunov's name emerging alongside his in the draw.

The US-based Russian was a key component in Henman's horrible 2005, imposing on the British No 1 his worst Wimbledon for 10 years by eliminating him in the second round. To complete a season in which Henman admits he began to question his involvement in the sport, he was beaten by Murray in the much-hyped "Battle of the Brits" in Basle last October, enough for many to announce that change of guard.

Having announced his eagerness to get to grips with the game's giants by attaining a ranking high enough to guarantee automatic entry into the top tournaments, Murray has had his wish granted. The teenaged Scot's first opponent, Juan Ignacio Chela, may be a giant only in terms of stature but he is one of those pesky Argentinians who specialise in wrecking the ambitions of anyone who happens to stray into their path. In the past, Henman and Rusedski have suffered Chela's tennis version of water-drip torture, allied to histrionics and gamesmanship, so this will provide an excellent test, not only of Murray's burgeoning skills but also of his nerve and temper.

Getting past Chela would merely expose Murray to the hairdryer blast of the third-seeded Lleyton Hewitt, whereas success for Henman could open the door in an easy quarter, but let's not get carried away here. One Brit in the second round, never mind the second week, would be good news.

Rusedski is not the only absentee, though the big three to fall by the wayside - the defending champion, Marat Safin, the French Open title holder, Rafael Nadal, and the ageless Andre Agassi, four times champion here - are sidelined by injury rather than choice. Clearly, the tournament is diminished by their absence, reducing as it does the number of realistic challengers to Roger Federer. The Swiss wonder man has been at it already in 2006, winning his first tournament of the season in Qatar and pushing closer to two years in residence as world No 1.

However, extra anguish for the injured trio is that Federer has been reduced to a level slightly below his best by ankle damage which has not, despite assurances to the contrary, fully mended. This small item of good news for all who labour in Federer's impressive wake should have provided extra cheer for Hewitt, only for the feisty Aussie to be socked in the eye once more by finishing in Federer's half of the draw. Last year Hewitt was beaten in the Australian final by Safin; in fact the last seven Grand Slams have seen Hewitt lose, at one stage or another, to the eventual champion, a sequence that he will be keen to terminate.

The arrival of the first home-grown Australian champion for 30 years (Mark Edmondson in 1976, since you ask) would be a clear occasion for acclaim, but Hewitt himself is struggling to hit form following a year embracing the distractions of marriage and parenthood.

So the projected Federer-Hewitt semi-final might not come to pass, though it would need a mighty upset to spoil those seedings. However, in Federer's quarter lurks an eminent seed-slayer in Germany's Tommy Haas, who beat the world No 1 in an exhibition event last week. Haas provides a rebuttal of the Samson legend in that his career has flourished since he lopped off his ponytail. There are, of course, other factors, such as complete recovery from a lengthy shoulder injury, and Haas might just derail the Federer Express.

In the other half of the draw Andy Roddick will be happy with his lot, allowing other people to have a pop at Federer until it should be his turn in the final. Possible disruption to that script could be provided by Croatia's Ivan Ljubicic, who is in robust fettle and still on a high since winning the Davis Cup for his country in December. He is scheduled to face Roddick in the semi-finals. Even so, the gentlemen who lay odds are not prepared to offer any against Federer. He has won the last two Grand Slams, and a kickstart to the new season is what he seeks.

And Murray, who ran him so close in the final of the Thailand Open three months ago, will be watching with interest.

Comments