Nobody should read too much into the first results of a new season but it is hard not to conclude that Andy Murray's chances of success at the Australian Open later this month are looking brighter by the day. While the 21-year-old Scot was enjoying a workmanlike victory over Albert Montanes in the first round of the Qatar Open yesterday, Novak Djokovic began his preparations for the defence of his Australian Open title by losing to Latvia's Ernests Gulbis in the first round of the Brisbane International.
Having warmed up for his first competitive outing of the year by beating Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to win an exhibition tournament in Abu Dhabi last week, Murray rarely looked in trouble against Montanes, a 28-year-old Spaniard ranked No 43 in the world, in his first competitive match of the campaign. Murray won 6-2, 6-4 to earn a second-round meeting with Germany's Philipp Petzschner.
The British No 1, who is defending the title in Doha, scorned two break points in the opening game, but did not have to wait long before taking command. A double-fault gave him a break in the third game and Montanes dropped serve again to trail 2-5. Murray served out for the set, though he could have taken it more comfortably. His errors gave Montanes four break points, but the Spaniard was unable to take any of them and eventually lost the set when he hit a forehand long.
Although Murray was taking time to find his stride, he cheered the sparse crowd by moving up a gear in the second set, racing into a 4-0 lead with a combination of subtle drop shots and baseline power. Montanes, however, refused to throw in the towel and promptly won three games in a row, breaking serve for the first and only time in the match. Murray nevertheless held serve for 5-3 and eventually served out to love for the match.
Russia's Dmitry Tursunov, who was seeded to meet Murray in the quarter-finals, was beaten 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 by Austria's Alexander Peya, but Federer, the world No 4's scheduled semi-final opponent, had little trouble disposing of Italy's Potito Starace, winning 6-2, 6-2. Nadal, who is in the other half of the draw, dropped only one game on his way to victory over Fabrice Santoro.
The form of the big three in Doha was in stark contrast to that of Djokovic. The world No 3, who won his first Grand Slam title in Melbourne 12 months ago, was beaten 6-4, 6-4 by Gulbis, the world No 53 and his former training partner at the Niki Pilic academy in Munich. With so little match practice under his belt, Djokovic requested and was granted a wild card to play in next week's Sydney International.
"I'm not panicking," Djokovic said. "The Australian Open is my highest goal for this part of the year and I really want to play well there. It's not the end of the world. It's the first match, so I'm not going to be pessimistic. I have a lot of time now to prepare for the Aussie Open."
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, beaten by Djokovic in last year's Melbourne final, became the new favourite for the Brisbane title when he beat Argentina's Agustin Calleri 6-2, 7-5. Tomas Berdych, the No 5 seed, crushed Australia's Brydan Klein 6-0, 6-4.
Jamie Murray, Andy's brother, is also playing in Brisbane and made a winning start to his new partnership with the 32-year-old Serb, Dusan Vemic, following his split with Max Mirnyi. Murray and Vemic beat Austria's Julian Knowle and Jürgen Melzer 6-7, 6-2, 10-4. In today's second round they were due to play the American Travis Parrott and Slovakia's Filip Polasek.
Four months ago Murray and Ross Hutchins were beaten in straight sets by Knowle and Melzer in Britain's Davis Cup World Group play-off against Austria. "It was great to get off to a winning start," Murray said yesterday. "Melzer and Knowle are an established pair with a great record, so it was a good win for us."
Anne Keothavong, the British No 1, also got her season off to a positive start, beating Mirjana Lucic, of Croatia, 6-4, 6-2 in Auckland to earn a second-round encounter with Spain's Carla Suarez Navarro. Keothavong is at a career-high No 60 in the world rankings following the most successful year of her career.