Andy Murray was due to play his first match of the year in the small hours of this morning at the Hopman Cup in Perth but the world No 4's focus is firmly fixed on a bigger prize. Just as he did 12 months ago, Murray is using the mixed team event as his main preparation for the Australian Open, which begins in a fortnight's time.
Having played some of the best tennis of his career in Melbourne last year, when he lost to Roger Federer in the final, Murray is preparing in similar fashion for the first Grand Slam event of the new season. While Federer and Rafael Nadal will again make this week's Qatar Open their main warm-up tournament, Murray believes that playing and practising in Perth will ensure that he arrives at Melbourne Park in the best possible shape.
Conditions in Doha can be chilly, but the temperature in Perth yesterday approached 40C. The Hopman Cup is played indoors because of the heat, but Murray also practises outdoors to help him acclimatise. He arrived in Perth last week from Miami, where he had spent the last month at his winter training camp.
"I train in Miami to try and get some good weather, but it's still like 75 Fahrenheit [24 C] there and it's obviously 100 [38 C] here," Murray said yesterday on the eve of his opening match against Italy's Potito Starace. "It still takes time – for me at least 10 days – to get used to the conditions."
He added: "This tournament for me last year was perfect preparation. Last year's Aussie Open was one of the best events I've played in my life. I played some of my best tennis there. I'll have to play even better if I want to win, because Rafa and Roger are playing so well just now.
"I've worked a lot on my serve and I'll keep working on it the next couple of weeks. I think from the baseline I've matched up well with Roger and Rafa in the past, but I'll need to serve well and return well against them if I want to beat them."
Murray said his final match of 2010, when he lost to Nadal in a three-hour thriller in the semi-finals of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals at London's 02 Arena, had bolstered his confidence. "It was a great match, one of the best matches I'd played in during the year," he said. "I think both of us played a really high standard and it was a good way in many ways to finish the year."
Playing at the Hopman Cup ensures that Murray will get at least three singles and three doubles matches under his belt this week. His other singles matches will be against Nicolas Mahut and John Isner while he will partner Laura Robson in mixed doubles for the second year in succession. Robson, who is teaming up with her new coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, at a tournament for the first time, will face Francesca Schiavone, Kristina Mladenovic and Bethanie Mattek-Sands in her singles matches.
Nadal and Federer, who are the top two seeds in Doha, met in neighbouring Abu Dhabi on Saturday in the final of an exhibition event. "For both of us, these are the first matches of the season, so it is special for us," Nadal said after his 7-6, 7-6 victory. "This is the perfect place to start the season."
Federer, who let slip a 3-0 lead in the first tie-break, said: "I never lost my serve but I still lost the tournament. It's kind of tough. Rafael and myself must have played so many times and so many times it has come down to a few shots here and there. He is an amazing shot-maker. Me as well, but today he got the better of me."
Britain’s Heather Watson reached the main draw of the WTA event in Auckland, New Zealand, after winning her third qualifying match in succession last night, beating Italy’s Alberta Brianti 6-3, 6-2. Katie O’Brien, who was facing Thailand’s Noppawan Lertcheewakarn in a later qualifying match, was hoping to join her.
Kim Clijsters and Caroline Wozniacki, who brought down the curtain on the 2010 season by contesting the final of the WTA Championships, began the new campaign in similar fashion, with the Belgian again beating the Dane. Clijsters won their exhibition match in Hua Hin, Thailand, 6-3, 4-6, 12-10, securing victory after a champions tie-break.