Brad Gilbert, Andy Murray's coach, was beaming. "A year ago he was a kid," Gilbert said after his charge's emphatic three-set victory over Juan Ignacio Chela in the third round of the Australian Open here last night. "Now he's a professional."
Murray's 6-3 6-2 6-4 victory over the Argentinian was encouraging confirmation of the huge strides he has made since being swept aside by the same opponent in the same Vodafone Arena in the first round 12 months ago. Murray, the world No 16, is through to the fourth round of his third Grand Slam tournament in succession, though his next challenge is a formidable one.
The 19-year-old Scot's last-16 opponent tomorrow will be Rafael Nadal, the world No 2, who enjoyed a resounding victory yesterday over Switzerland's Stanislas Wawrinka. The match will almost certainly be the showcase night match in the main Rod Laver Arena. "Andy was born to play on centre court, not on court 18," Gilbert said approvingly.
Last night's match did not start until 9.30pm, having been switched indoors after rain washed out play on every court bar the two with retractable roofs. The 10,000-capacity Vodafone Arena was less than a quarter full, but there were plenty of Scottish and Union flags, not to mention loud vocal support.
From the moment he broke serve in the sixth game Murray was in command. He served smartly and quickly found his range on his groundstrokes, frequently unsettling Chela with sudden injections of pace. There were tantalising drop shots, a succession of thumping winners from both flanks and even a smattering of winning volleys. Chela is a decent striker of the ball, but Murray's speed around the court cut down the world No 33's flow of winners.
Chela's first break points did not come until the fourth game of the second set, but Murray responded by holding serve with four superb points in succession: two aces, a forehand drilled into the corner with pinpoint accuracy and, best of all, a beautifully constructed exchange rounded off by a winning volley. Chela broke twice in the third set but was never in front.
"I was really happy with the way I played," Murray said. "I served great the whole match and hit a lot of winners. I made a few too many errors in the first set on his service games, but once I started to find my range from the ground I started making him do a lot of running."
Murray, who has yet to drop a set here this year, has already beaten five of the world's top 10 - Roger Federer, Nikolai Davydenko, Ivan Ljubicic, Andy Roddick and Fernando Gonzalez - but has never played Nadal. At the end of last year he said the Spaniard was the opponent he most wanted to face in 2007.
"I'm looking forward to it," he said last night. "He's a very good player, someone I respect a lot. He plays very well on these courts and it's going to be a good test for me to see how I do against him. If I play like I did tonight, it's going to be a close match."
Nadal, who is Murray's third Spanish opponent after Alberto Martin and Fernando Verdasco, has had a comparatively lean time since last summer. He has not won a tournament since the French Open and has not reached a final since Wimbledon.
However, his 6-2 6-2 6-2 victory over Wawrinka - watched by Gilbert - indicated he might be running into the form he showed in dominating the last two clay-court seasons. Nadal described it as his best performance of the year. Regularly running round his backhand in order to fire his cannonball forehand, he had far too much power for his Swiss opponent, who is the world No 40.
Gilbert said he would devise a gameplan with Murray today. "Nadal's a tough ask but Andy is playing well enough to take on anyone," he said. "Nadal is as good a place as anywhere for you to assess where you're at."
What does Nadal make of his next opponent? "Murray's improving his game," he said. "He's very young, just one year younger than me. He started the season well in Doha. I'd say he's a very good player who can be one of the best in the world. In fact, he's one of the best in the world right now."
The weather forecast for tomorrow is better, which should mean that the match will be played outdoors. Nadal has played all three of his matches so far under cover, while two of Murray's three have been indoors. Strangely, all four of the matches Murray has played in Melbourne have been on the same court.
All Australian interest in the singles competitions ended last night when Lleyton Hewitt was beaten in four sets by Gonzalez, Alicia Molik having lost to Patty Schnyder earlier in the evening. Gonzalez now plays James Blake, who wasted little time disposing of his fellow American Robby Ginepri.
David Nalbandian reinforced his reputation as the comeback king by saving match points and winning from two sets down for the second time in three matches to beat Sébastien Grosjean 5-7 4-6 7-6 6-4 6-1.
Grosjean said that a long-term groin injury meant his only chance had been to win in three sets. Such a victory seemed certain when Nalbandian reached 0-40 on his own serve at 4-5 and two sets down. However, he saved the three match points and went on to win the tie-break and the last two sets.