It was not nerves, Andy Murray insisted. He was not overawed by the occasion, nor by his opponent, nor the arena. Rather, he had a bad day, and those who regard him as the future of British tennis had better get used to it.
Tipped as a potential champion after a phenomenal rise up the world rankings last year, the Scottish teenager fell back to earth yesterday when he was thrashed 6-1, 6-3, 6-3 by Argentina's Juan Ignacio Chela in the first round of the Australian Open.
Afterwards, a despondent Murray made clear that he was feeling the pressure of public expectation. He told reporters: "If you guys expect me to play well every single match and every single tournament, then it's not going to happen. Everybody has a bad tournament sometime. Unfortunately it came here."
Here being Melbourne Park, location of the season-opening Grand Slam tournament, and the first major to which the 18-year-old Murray had secured direct entry. Last year he soared from 514th in the world to No 65, reached the third round at Wimbledon and beat Tim Henman at Basle in a match dubbed the "battle of the Brits".
That outcome provoked much talk of the baton being passed from one generation to the next - and, after Henman was defeated in the first round here on Monday, British hopes were naturally pinned on Murray.
However his fans, a considerable number of whom cheered him on in the Vodafone Arena yesterday, will have to be patient. Murray is still young and inexperienced. Chela, who was a quarter-finalist at Roland Garros in 2004, made mincemeat of him.
The first set flashed by in 23 minutes as Chela broke serve twice to go into a 5-1 lead, with Murray at times reduced to a spectator, watching the ball whistle past him. Things improved marginally in the second set as the Scot - the youngest player in the men's draw - started to find his rhythm. But the unforced errors kept coming and Chela remained in control. After failing to convert two break points, Murray hurled his racket to the ground, earning himself a warning from the umpire.
It was not until the third set, when the match was in its death throes, that Murray began to show glimmers of brilliance, prevailing in some long rallies and producing winners that earned chants of approbation. It was not enough to get him out of trouble, however, and a third and final chance to break Chela's serve passed by unconverted.
The Argentinian, who went on to seal victory with a delicately placed backhand volley, said that he had expected to meet tougher opposition. But he observed, with justification, that he had played well "from the first point until the end".
As for Murray, he still has many mountains to climb. "I played really silly tennis for two sets," he said. "I played better in the third. I was just trying to be way too aggressive. I was making so many mistakes. It's the first time I've been so easily beaten since I've been on the tour."
And with Britain so poorly endowed with world-class players, he will have to get used to the public scrutiny. "It's difficult for me to go out there and try and perform to the best that I can when I'm expected to win all these matches," the Scot said.
When one reporter suggested that he was not under pressure to win every time, Murray replied, testily: "You don't think there's any pressure on me? Well if you don't think that, I'm obviously going to disagree."Reuse content