Murray looks to start year in style against an old foe

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The Independent Online

Eight months ago, Andy Murray was in the middle of his worst run of the year when he came up against Filippo Volandri in the Rome Masters. The Italian won 6-4, 6-4 and went on to enjoy his most successful season on the professional tour, but it will be a major surprise if the outcome is the same when the two men meet today in the first round of the Qatar Open.

While 25-year-old Volandri finished 2006 with his highest year-end ranking of No 37, his climb up the order was nothing compared with that of 19-year-old Murray. The Scot begins 2007 as the world No 17, 48 places higher than he was a year ago, and has made substantial progress since Volandri outplayed him on the Foro Italico's clay courts, at a time when Murray was without a coach and had been struggling with illness and injury.

Murray has chosen to begin his preparations for the Australian Open, which starts a fortnight today, by breaking his journey with a stopover on the hard courts at Doha. It was a plan that worked for Roger Federer, who won the tournament in 2005 and 2006, though the world No 1 has decided to prepare for Melbourne this year by practising in Dubai.

Having spent a month in America working on his fitness and practising at Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida alongside the likes of Gael Monfils, Max Mirnyi and Tommy Haas, Murray returned home for Christmas before leaving for the Middle East last week. He is in Doha with his brother Jamie - they play Stanislas Wawrinka and Marcos Baghdatis in the first round of the doubles - and coach, Brad Gilbert.

Murray is the No 4 seed behind Nikolay Davydenko, Ivan Ljubicic and Baghdatis. If he wins today he will next play either Alberto Martin or Christophe Rochus, with Wawrinka and Davydenko the likely opponents in the quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively.

Rafael Nadal, the world No 2, begins his Australian Open preparations this week alongside the likes of David Nalbandian and Carlos Moya in India at the Chennai Open, while Lleyton Hewitt, Novak Djokovic and Richard Gasquet will be among the players getting a first taste of the ATP's experiment with a round-robin format in Adelaide.

Three different round-robin formats will be used at 11 tournaments this year. Adelaide features a "hybrid" round-robin system. After an elimination round for the lowest-ranked entrants, the 24 remaining players are divided into eight groups of three, guaranteeing everyone at least two matches. The eight group winners will go into a conventional knock-out tournament.

The two main women's tournaments this week are in Auckland and on the Gold Coast in Australia. Play began yesterday at the Gold Coast Open, where Martina Hingis dropped only two games in beating Australia's Sybille Bammer.

Hingis returned to the game in this tournament 12 months ago after a three-year absence and enjoyed a fine year, finishing 2006 as the world No 7.

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