For the third Grand Slam tournament in succession, Andy Murray heads for Melbourne next week as the man in form. Just as he went into Wimbledon and the US Open last year on the back of tournament victories, so the 24-year-old Scot will start the Australian Open with renewed confidence after winning his final warm-up event, thanks to a 6-1, 6-3 victory yesterday over the Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov in the Brisbane International.
With his new coach, Ivan Lendl, watching from the sidelines, Murray could hardly have made a better start to the season as he claimed the 22nd title of his career. Although Dolgopolov was clearly hampered by a leg injury, the emphatic victory capped an excellent first week for the world No 4, whose form improved with every match.
The situation at the top of the men's game bears a remarkable resemblance to four months ago, when Murray went into the last Grand Slam tournament of the year on a hot streak. In the last Masters Series event before the US Open, Murray beat Novak Djokovic in the final in Cincinnati after the world No 1 retired hurt with a shoulder injury, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer having suffered straight-sets defeats in the quarter-finals. At Flushing Meadows, nevertheless, it was Djokovic who went on to beat Nadal in the final after the world's top two players had overcome Federer and Murray respectively in the semi-finals.
Murray has now kicked off his season with a title for the third time in five years – he won in Doha in 2008 and 2009 but did not play a Tour event in the build-up to Melbourne in 2010 and 2011 – while the three men above him in the world rankings have barely put their heads above the parapet.
Djokovic, who won a new year exhibition event in Abu Dhabi, will not have played a competitive match for nearly two months by the time he starts the defence of his Australian Open title. Federer pulled out with a back problem after last week's quarter-finals in Doha, where Nadal was beaten by Gaël Monfils in the semi-finals.
Murray, however, will not be fooled. "A lot of times going into Slams people have asked me about [other players]," the world No 4 said after his victory yesterday. "Before the US Open [they said]: 'Rafa's struggling, Novak's got a bad shoulder, Roger's not playing well.' And every time it's the same guys in the semi-finals and the final of the Slams.
"So I'm not really concerned about them. I'm sure Roger will be absolutely fine, just like Novak was at the US Open. A lot of times you can take precautions two weeks before a Slam. That's normal. But I'm sure all of them will be fine.
"Rafa normally doesn't play his best tennis the first week of the year either. So they'll all be playing great tennis come Australia, because that's where they plan on playing their best tennis. And I'm not different from them either. I want to play my best tennis there too."
Murray has reached the last two Australian Open finals, only to lose in straight sets to Federer and then to Djokovic. He believes he can perform well again: "I'm a year wiser, I have a year more experience and I think I've improved a few things in my game."
He added: "I could play great tennis again and lose in the second or third round. That's how tennis works sometimes. But equally I could win the tournament if I play my best. I just need to show up, give 100 per cent on every single point. If someone plays a great match to beat me, that happens. But if I play well like I did this week, I'll give myself a good chance."
After struggling to beat Mikhail Kukushkin and Gilles Müller in his first two matches, Murray beat Marcos Baghdatis, Bernard Tomic and Dolgopolov without dropping a set. "I've played much better the last three matches," he said. "At the start of the week my movement felt one out of 10. I feel like I'm moving about an eight or nine out of 10 now. I can still get better, but I'm playing well."
Murray will spend the rest of this week preparing in Melbourne with Lendl, with an exhibition match against David Nalbandian at Kooyong on Friday. Lendl has never coached a top player before, but as the only man in the Open era to win a Grand Slam singles title after losing his first four finals, he can tell Murray all about perseverance. The Scot, who said they had got on "really well" in their first few days together, has lost his first three finals.
"I think the advice I will be getting from him will be more in terms of competing at the big events and the pressures that can bring," Murray said. "He knows the feeling if you are playing a Grand Slam final at seven in the evening, the nerves in the build-up, he understands all that stuff. When you are preparing for a Slam final or semi-final you are not thinking about what is going on back home or what you are saying to the press, you are thinking about the match and trying to be part of history and winning one of the biggest events."
Omens: final warning
Andy Murray may have to endure one more major disappointment before tasting Grand Slam success – if the career of his new coach, Ivan Lendl, is any guide. Lendl lost his first four Slam finals before taking the 1984 French – his first of eight titles.
Murray's major final defeats by ...
Roger Federer, US Open, 2008
Federer, Australian Open, 2010
Novak Djokovic, Aus Open, 2011
Lendl lost his first four Slam finals to ...
Bjorn Borg, French Open, 1981
Jimmy Connors, US Open, 1982
Connors, US Open, 1983
Mats Wilander, Australian Open, 1983