Over the next fortnight in Melbourne we should get a better idea of whether Andy Murray is on course to become the next Wayne Rooney of British sport, as his then coach, Mark Petchey, forecast a couple of years ago. The Australian Open, which gets under way tomorrow, sees the 20-year-old handily placed as ninth seed and in the opposite half of the draw to the omnipotent Roger Federer.
More importantly, Murray is approaching his ninth Grand Slam in peak form and high good humour. Smiles have replaced scowls as part of his new persona, a hard session of fitness work in the off-season has already paid off with a tournament victory a week ago in Doha and all we wish now for the Scot, with fingers crossed and a rabbit's foot to hand, is a season full of positive things and devoid of the sort of injuries which have plagued his progress so far.
If all those factors come together the signs are not only that he will do well in Melbourne over the coming days but that 2008 can see him "do a Rooney" by getting inside the world's top five and even perhaps pocketinga first Grand Slam title.
There is no question that Murray is the most talented British player since the Open era of tennis got under way in 1968. Greg Rusedski may have served bigger in his prime and Tim Henman was a better volleyer, but no one has possessed that combination of striking rhythm and sheer genius of shot-making. The young man is a one-off, sadly for the ambitions of the Lawn Tennis Association, but let us cherish the one we've got and wish his wrists, ankles, knees, shoulders and back the happiest of years as he goes about his business.
All those body parts have given concern since Murray's ascent into the big time got going in the summer of 2005, none more so than the wrist tendon damage he suffered last May which kept him off the circuit for three months and almost certainly out of that top-five group. But, in keeping with the Rooney connection, Murray has opted for teamwork in pursuit of his ambitions.
Just as Martina Navratilova once surrounded herself with what she called "my coterie", Murray has taken on board a group of advisers and experts to replace his former coaching arrangement with Brad Gilbert, which came to a sour end last November. Most of the newcomers are closer than Gilbert to his own age group and, like a Rafa Benitez squad, will be rotated and, if he decrees it, replaced.
So to all the other Murray attributes you can add a keen mind and the ability to make tough decisions about his own wellbeing. For example the 33-year-old Miles Maclagan, who is resolutely Scottish despite being born in Zambia, has a coaching agreement which will be assessed by Murray after the Australian Open.
"Tennis now is so hectic and intense and it's such a long season," Murray explained. "The relationship between players and coaches isn't as good after you've had a few rows. It's difficult to travel for long periods with people if you aren't getting on with them. You want to try and limit that as much as possible and I think I have, by not having the same people every single week. It keeps it fresh and fun for everyone, and I'm hopingI can keep it that way."
Certainly the ploy of using one fitness coach, Jez Green, in North America and another, Matt Little, in Europe seems to have contributed much to the new level of endurance and commitment on show in Doha as Murray waltzed to the fourth title of his young career.
"This is by far the best preparation I have had for a season," he said. "I worked longer on it and had a fitness trainer with me all the time. It's definitely the longest and the hardest I've ever prepared for. The past couple of years I was training just to be in shape for the start of the year. But now I want to be in the best shape possible for all the Grand Slams and Masters events, because I am confident I can go deep into tournaments."
The hope is that Murray will do just that in Melbourne, where he got to the fourth round a year ago only to lose a dramatic five-setter to Rafael Nadal which was deemed the Open's best match. This time he has been allotted a potentially awkward first round against the muscular Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, ranked 38, and will play him tomorrow.
Tsonga it was who closed Henman's tour career on a losing note at the US Open last September. He also got to the fourth round at Wimbledon, won the Surbiton Challenger tournament and beat Lleyton Hewitt at the Artois Championships in London. But if he is two years older than Murray he is considerably less experienced. Murray's won-lost record is 102-49; Tsonga's is a mere 19-14. Their only previous clash, in Metz last October, went to Murray for the loss of just six games. So here's hoping for some Rooney-style stuff from Our Hero in Oz.
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