Andy Murray's recall of statistics and past matches is as impressive as his thumping double-handed backhand or the deftest of his drop shots. The Scot can always reel off first-serve percentages and match scores like a historian reciting the dates of major battles.
But as he prepares to wage war in the Australian Open, which begins here on Monday, Murray has one particularly telling statistic that he wants to get off his chest. "I haven't played that many Grand Slams," he says. "Roger Federer won his first when he played his 17th – and this is going to be my 17th." For a man who has had to listen to the charge that, at 22, he is already too old to win his first major title, the numbers seem loaded with an irresistible symmetry.
"I missed a few Slams through injury, and had a few injury problems going into a few of them," he continues, talking in a break from his preparations for the opening major tournament of 2010. As he speaks, his entourage – coach Miles Maclagan, physiotherapist Andy Ireland, and one of his personal trainers, Jez Green – melt into the background of the players' lounge at the exclusive Kooyong tennis club, where the world No 5 has been playing this week. When Team Murray needs a spokesman, there is only one man for the job.
"This is something I've talked about with my team, about making sure that I'm absolutely ready for the Slams." Murray says. "Maybe that means taking an extra week off beforehand, or travelling early to make sure I don't catch any bugs. That's what I'm going to do to make sure I'm 100 per cent fit for the Slams."
So is Murray ready to make the final push into the list of Grand Slam champions? Could it happen here in Melbourne? Federer, who won his first major one month before his 22nd birthday, was a comparatively late developer. Most modern Slam winners achieve their goal considerably earlier. Ivan Lendl, who won his first at the age of 24 in his 19th Grand Slam tournament, was the most notable exception. Of the three men other than Federer who have won Slams since the 2005 Australian Open, Rafael Nadal did so at the sixth attempt at the age of 19, Novak Djokovic at the 13th attempt aged 20, and Juan Martin del Potro at the 14th attempt aged 20.
Murray, who will be 23 in May, has always maintained that he would not reach his peak until he approaches his mid-twenties. He is now gearing everything towards peaking at the major events. He chose not to defend his Qatar Open title last week in the interests of arriving early in Australia in order to give himself more time to acclimatise.
And Murray will need to be strong throughout the coming fortnight if he is to triumph. His subsequent slip to No 5 in the world rankings means that he may have to beat Nadal (world No 2) in the quarter-finals, Del Potro (No 4) in the semi-finals and Federer (No 1) in the final if he is to win here.
Before that he faces a qualifier in the first round and is then seeded to meet Marc Gicquel or Simone Bolelli in the second, Jurgen Melzer in the third and Gaël Monfils in the fourth. Only the last two players on that list can truly claim to have threatening form.
In the other half of the draw, Federer has potentially tricky early matches against Igor Andreev and Lleyton Hewitt before scheduled meetings with Nikolay Davydenko and Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively.
Although the Australian Open is played on Murray's favourite surface, he has only a moderate record on the hard courts here, having gone no further than the fourth round, in which he lost to Nadal in 2007 and to Fernando Verdasco last year. In the last two years he has been unfortunate to run into opponents – Verdasco and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – who made flying starts to the year and went on to reach the semi-finals and final respectively.
Murray believes he has matured in the last 12 months. "Last year was the first time I played consistently well throughout the year, with hardly any early losses," he says. "You get used to that feeling of winning and knowing how to come through when you're not necessarily playing your best and struggling. Maybe in the Slams in the past I've lost some matches where I wasn't playing my best. Maybe now, because I've won a lot more than I had in the past, I'll be able to come through them. I'm more ready to win a Grand Slam than I was last year, so I just need to make sure I play my best tennis. And I feel like I'm going to do that."
Murray thinks there are more potential Grand Slam winners this season than in the recent years of domination by Federer and Nadal. "Del Potro has beaten Federer and Nadal the last couple of times he's played them, I've won against Del Potro and Djokovic the last time I've played them, Djokovic has beaten Del Potro and Davydenko has won more against Nadal and Federer lately. A lot of the guys are beating each other now.
"There are also guys like [Marcos] Baghdatis and [Lleyton] Hewitt who are coming back and playing well again, and [Jo-Wilfried] Tsonga. There are a lot of guys who can do damage. But you never know. You have to wait and see what happens because this is only the first or second tournament of the year for people. Some guys might play well, some might be a bit rusty."
While Murray is comfortable with his counter-attacking style, he can be expected to play a little more aggressively this year. "It's not so much taking the ball on, it's knowing the right time to come to the net and understanding that part of the game a little bit more. Maybe serve and volley more. The most important thing is to choose the right time. Guys probably return the best they ever have done right now and you know how good they are from the back of the court. We've worked on what shots to come forward on."
As usual, Murray will be flying a lone flag in the men's singles, after Dan Evans, the last Briton left in qualifying, went out after taking only three games off Spain's Santiago Ventura. But with Murray on the front foot, confident, and happy to declare he is better prepared than ever, 17 may yet prove to be his lucky number.
Federer: I've been on phone to Tiger
Roger federer has been helping Tiger Woods through his recent troubles – as one of the few people able to contact the world No 1 golfer.
"He's my friend and [so] I've spoken to him and given him my support," Federer said, and added that what has happened since the revelations of Woods' extramarital adventures has "scared" him.
The record 15-times Grand Slam winner said in an interview published yesterday that Woods' car accident in November and subsequent reports about his private life have been hard on the golfer and his family. Federer told the French sports daily L'Equipe that he had expressed his support, and said Woods' troubles were "instructive".
''The tabloids are going crazy, sponsor contracts are falling apart ... I've always been aware that the image you patiently construct for an entire career can be ruined in a minute," Federer said. "It scares you a bit, but that's the way things are."
Woods has not been seen in public since the accident and has halted his golf indefinitely, but Federer is convinced that "soon he'll become the wonderful golfer that we know again".Reuse content