Given the rise in his world ranking and his performances against some of the world's best players, Andy Murray hardly needs to prove how much progress he has made in the last year. However, the British No 1 was looking forward to the chance of proving a point as he thought ahead to his match here tomorrow against Juan Ignacio Chela in the third round of the Australian Open.
Murray's straight-sets defeat to the Argentine in the first round here 12 months ago was one of his worst moments of 2006. He felt weighed down by the weight of media expectation and the first cracks were showing in the relationship with his then coach, Mark Petchey.
A hard-fought 7-6, 7-5, 6-4 victory over Spain's Fernando Verdasco in energy-sapping heat yesterday earned Murray another tilt at Chela, who earlier in the afternoon overcame Jarkko Nieminen, the No 17 seed, in four sets. Murray has already beaten Chela, the world No 33, atthe Paris Masters indoor tournament in November.
"I'm looking forward to it," Murray said. "It's going to be a tough match. He plays really well on these courts and he beat Lleyton Hewitt here last year. He's obviously used to the heat and had a good win today.
"It's going to be difficult, but I'm in better shape than I was and I've got more experience. It's probably going to be a completely different match, but definitely very close."
Murray believes losing to Chela was one of the best things that happened to him. "I wasn't very good a year ago," he said. "I started working harder after the Australian Open and obviously I realised that I had to work on certain areas of my game that weren't good enough."
Those improvements were evident in the win over Verdasco. The 23-year-old world No 35 is a hard-hitting left-hander with an unpredictable game. He hits some ferocious forehands, often running round his backhand, and particularly likes the drive volley, although the shot cost him several points here. He serves well and if his backhand can be a weakness he occasionally launches it to hit unlikely winners.
At 34C the temperature was hot enough in the Vodafone Arena and the Rebound Ace courts here are demanding on feet. "The court is so hot that you feel your feet burning," Murray said. "They're sore when you come off the court. There's a lot more lactic acid build-up in your legs."
It was not quite a case of winning ugly, but Murray showed he can tough it out, particularly during a first set which Verdasco will have kicked himself for not winning. There were five successive breaks and the Spaniard served for the set at 5-4.
Murray also had to come from behind in the tie-break, which took a decisive turn when the Scot took two successive points against serve after trailing 3-2, the second of them a superb backhand cross-court winner. Verdasco led in the second set as well, but from 4-1 down Murray started to attack the net and won 10 of the next 12 games before completing victory after two hours and 48 minutes.
"A year ago I might not have come back from those situations," Murray said. "I might have let it slip. This year I think my experience is much greater. He probably would have beaten me a year ago."
Although some of the tennis bordered on the attritional, the crowd got behind Murray. "The support I get here is unbelievable," he said. "It makes it easier for you. I'm sure the people who play against Hewitt will tell you that it really is difficult when you've got that many people screaming against you. I can't believe so many people enjoy watching me play."
It will be interesting to see which player the public gets behind if Murray reaches the fourth round. His likely opponent is Rafael Nadal, the world No 2, who was pushed hard by Germany's Philipp Kohlschreiber before winning in four sets last night.
After her struggles in the midday heat against Camille Pin on Tuesday, Maria Sharapova relished the evening cool to beat Anastassia Rodionova 6-0, 6-3 in 58 minutes. The biggest threats in the No 1 seed's half of the draw are Martina Hingis and Kim Clijsters, who are having a private race for the quarter-finals, where they are scheduled to meet.
They were on court at the same time during the first round and found themselves heading out together for their second-round matches yesterday. Clijsters said: "When we got back to the locker room in the first round she said: 'Damn, you beat me, you got here first.' Today we were waiting to be escorted out and she said: 'I hope I'm going to get back here before you.' We were joking and laughing. We're friends off the court, though if we get to play each other, it will just be business."
Clijsters won the race yesterday, beating Akiko Morigami 6-3, 6-0 in 59 minutes. Hingis took nine minutes more but never looked in danger against Alla Kudryavtseva, winning 6-2, 6-2.
* Andy Murray's brother, Jamie, partnering Benjamin Becker, lost in the first round of the doubles to Julien Benneteau and Nicolas Mahut. The only other Briton left in the main tournament, James Auckland, won his first-round doubles match alongside Stephen Huss 24 hours earlier.Reuse content