Countdown to the Australian Open: Turning his world upside down

Andy Murray has replaced the abrasive Brad Gilbert with a group of more easy-going coaches. The British No 1 tells Paul Newman why he expects the move to pay dividends as he goes in pursuit of his first Grand Slam next week
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The Independent Online

As an indication of how well prepared he is physically for next week's Australian Open, Andy Murray's match at the Kooyong Classic exhibition tournament here yesterday was probably a fair guide.

Having lost a tight first set to Ivan Ljubicic and with the temperature climbing towards the day's peak of 40 degrees, the 20-year-old Scot might have been forgiven for cutting his losses when he trailed 3-0 in the second. Not a bit of it. Murray went on the attack, won five games in a row to turn the match around and went on to win 6-7, 6-4, 6-2 after more than two hours under the scorching Melbourne sun.

"It didn't feel too bad, actually," the British No 1 said nonchalantly afterwards. "Your legs do feel it a bit, but I didn't feel too tired. It's just after long rallies that your legs burn a little."

If Murray's hard work in the off season has already paid off with victory in the Qatar Open last week, the even better news is that the world No 9 has never felt happier going into a Grand Slam tournament.

Brad Gilbert, Murray's coach for 16 months until their split at the end of last season, may have helped to take his game to new heights, but their relationship was often a taut one and there is no doubt that the Scot is in a more contented frame of mind after deciding to surround himself with a rotating team of specialists rather than entrust his game to one individual. Five of his newly assembled entourage were courtside yesterday and after his match Murray was brimming with confidence as he looked ahead to the season's first Grand Slam event.

"I feel good," he said. "I trained really hard in the off season. I prepared really well, though regardless of how well you train it's important to play well in the matches, which I did last week [in Doha]. I'll also have had three more matches [at Kooyong], so I'll have been here for about a week before I first play at the Australian Open."

In contrast to Gilbert's in-your-face style, the coaches Murray has been working with over the last month are more easy-going characters. Not that their more laid-back approach should leave any doubt about their credentials: Miles Maclagan, a Zambian-born former British Davis Cup player, has made a name for himself as a leading doubles coach, while Louis Cayer, a Canadian who has also specialised in doubles play, is a renowned expert on tennis technique.

"They're quite different," Murray said. "Because Miles played more tennis, he gives me more tactical advice. Louis is more technical. He's studied biomechanics and watches loads of videos of players, looking at slow motion to see exactly what guys are doing when they're hitting the ball. He knows a bit more technically.

"It's a perfect mix. There aren't too many coaches in the world that have both. For me to have a couple of guys who do the two really important things in tennis has been working well.

"I spent one week with Louis in the off season, doing about an hour or an hour and a half each day. Then I went over to Miami and just worked on my net game and my approach shots. I spent the rest of the time – about three and a half weeks – with Miles."

Cayer suggested small changes to Murray's serve, which has sometimes been a weakness in the past, and to his forehand when chasing down wide shots. The British No 1 also wants to improve his net game, with yesterday's match a good demonstration of how good a volleyer he can be.

"I think I made a big improvement in the off season on quite a few things, especially my serve and my volleys," he said. "The things I worked on have been very good. They can still get much better, but they're a big improvement from what they were like at the end of last year. I've enjoyed it so far."

Leon Smith, Murray's boyhood coach and the man in charge of the Lawn Tennis Association's 16-and-under programme, will also have a role, while another LTA employee, Andy Ireland, is working here alongside the Scot's fitness gurus, Jez Green and Matt Little.

The latter pair introduced Murray last month to Bikram yoga (named after its San Diego-based founder, Bikram Choudary), which is practised in rooms heated to 42 degrees. Murray described it as one of the toughest things he had ever done but believes the work will improve his flexibility. It should also help him to cope with high temperatures on court, always a big factor at the Australian Open.

The heat policy at Melbourne Park has been changed this year, allowing officials more flexibility to decide whether play should be suspended because of the extreme conditions. In particular there will be provision to suspend matches which have already begun. Last year there were complaints about the rule requiring players to complete matches even after the temperature had risen above what is regarded as the safety level.

Having spent four weeks at a training camp in Florida getting used to the heat, Murray feels the testing conditions here could be to his advantage. "I've always quite liked playing in heat, even though I have to do a lot of running because of my game," he said. "When it's hotter other guys tend to get more tired than me and make more unforced errors. When I change the rhythm and hit some short balls, after a while they start to make more mistakes.

Murray has planned his winter training with the Australian Open specifically in mind. "Until a couple of years ago I was just training to be in shape for the start of the year," he said. "But now that my ranking is high enough and I feel I've got quite a lot of experience playing at the highest level, I want to be in the best shape possible for the Masters season and the Grand Slams, because now I'm confident that I can go deep into the tournaments."

If you ignore the central five months of last summer, when injuries ruled him out of the French Open and Wimbledon, Murray's career has been moving firmly in one direction. In the last 13 months he has won three tournaments (San Jose, St Petersburg and Doha), reached two other finals, played in two Masters Series semi-finals and, despite missing such a large chunk of the year, come within an ace of qualifying for the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup.

Ironically, perhaps his most encouraging performance in that period came in a defeat, when he lost a five-set thriller to Rafael Nadal, the world No 2, in the fourth round of last year's Australian Open. That display, combined with Murray's preference for hard courts, his comfort on the new Plexicushion surface and the fact that he has taken his end-of-season form into the new year, will make the Scot one of the favourites when the first Grand Slam event of 2008 starts on Monday. He has been named No 9 seed, which will ensure he does not meet any of the top players in the first three rounds.

Murray, nevertheless, believes it will still be a year or two before we see the best of him. "I've always said that I don't think I'll play my best tennis until I'm 22 or 23 years old," he said. "I just want to make sure I keep improving. I'm working on a lot of little things and they take time."

Hot Scot: Murray's comeback trail

Toronto Masters Aug 2007 Well below his best after three-month absence with wrist injury and loses to Fabio Fognini, world No 139, in second round.

Cincinnati Masters Wins only three games in losing in first round to Marcos Baghdatis.

US Open Five-set win over Jonas Bjorkman proves return to fitness before third-round defeat against Korea's Lee Hyung Taik.

Davis Cup v Croatia Sept 2007 Leads Britain into World Group with singles wins over Marin Cilic and Roko Karanusic.

Metz Good showing ends in final defeat to Tommy Robredo.

Moscow Oct 2007 Second-round defeat by Janko Tipsarevic.

Madrid Masters Reaches third round with good wins over Radek Stepanek and Juan Ignacio Chela before narrow defeat to Rafael Nadal.

St Petersburg Best form since March to win tournament – beats three top 30 players in Dmitry Tursunov, Mikhail Youzhny and Fernando Verdasco.

Paris Masters Late surge for end-of-season Tennis Masters Cup ends with close quarter-final defeat to Richard Gasquet.

Doha Jan 2008 Shows benefits of winter training camp with wins over Thomas Johansson and Nikolai Davydenko before beating Stanislas Wawrinka in final.