Murray steps up with game to cut down big hitters

Scot's high-calibre returns will be crucial as two strong servers loom large in draw

Considering that nobody had served faster than Taylor Dent at this year's US Open it was quite a compliment. "I didn't feel like I was hurting him at all with my first serve in some games," the American said after his 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 third-round defeat by Andy Murray here late on Sunday night. "He just didn't have to move and was able to get it right at my feet. He made it look and feel like I served underhand at times."

Murray has yet to face a player ranked in the world's top 80 at this tournament, but as his challenges get tougher, beginning today with Marin Cilic, the Scot's ability to hit damaging returns will be crucial. As the 6ft 9in John Isner showed with his thunderbolts against Andy Roddick, the serve, particularly when hit from such a height, can be a killer weapon on the fast courts here. Cilic and Juan Martin del Potro, who is seeded to face Murray in the quarter-finals, are both 6ft 6in tall.

One of the best returners in the game, Murray acknowledges the different challenge that taller opponents present. "With their serve they can obviously hit spots on the court that other players can't because of their height and reach," he said. "They've got more angles they can play with."

Murray was delighted with his returns against Dent. "It's the best I've returned in a while. I'll take confidence from that going into the next week. I think when I've needed to I've played well and hit the shots that I've wanted to. Concentration was the only thing that I wanted to make sure was better than the first two matches and I thought that was good, too." Although he insists that "you can always do everything a bit better", Murray is happy with his game. "I can't have any complaints. I've not really played over two hours in any of the matches. I've dropped one set, but apart from that it's been very good."

Murray went into the tournament with the intention of getting into the net more often, although his default mode is always to play from the baseline. The world No 2 relishes the target a serve-and-volley man such as Dent provides and his passing shots produced a succession of winners.

Might Murray start coming forward more, given that the three players he is seeded to meet next – Rafael Nadal is his scheduled semi-final opponent, although the Spaniard is struggling with an abdominal injury – are all baseline men?

"You want to make sure you do it at the right time," Murray said. "If you're up in matches and you're feeling confident you, can go for it. It's something I practised a lot a couple of years ago and felt like I was getting pretty good at. I don't know how much I'll serve and volley next week, but it's worked well since I've been doing it so far."

Having played three matches in the first eight days of the tournament, Murray will have to play four in the last six if he reaches the final, but he stressed: "At any Slam the first week is as important as the second week. If you don't concentrate, the top guys lose. Roddick lost a match that no one probably would have expected. You need to make sure you're switched on right from the start and there's no chance I'm going to look past someone like Cilic. It would be unbelievably stupid to do that. He's a very good player."

Murray beat Cilic, the world No 17, at the same stage of the French Open and, indeed, has won all three of his matches against the 20-year-old Croat. "He always comes up with some unbelievable shots," Cilic said. "For example, he broke me with incredible passing shots out of nowhere. I had some chances in Paris, but I think he is tougher to play on hard courts because it is his best surface. For me, I have got to be focused on myself, try and serve well and be the more aggressive player."

While Murray refuses to look beyond Cilic here he is already making plans for the winter and next year. Because there is less of a gap between the end of this season and the start of next – the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London finish on 29 November and the first tour event of the new year begins on 4 January – he has already decided to miss his traditional family Christmas back home in Scotland.

Instead he will be training in Miami before heading for Australia, where he is expected to play mixed doubles with Laura Robson in the Hopman Cup in Perth en route to the Australian Open. For the last three years his warm-up tournament for the year's first Grand Slam event has been the Qatar Open in Doha, which he has won twice, but he finds the weather too cold and not the ideal preparation for the conditions in Melbourne, where he has yet to go beyond the fourth round.

No distractions: Family first to go

Andy Murray is here with his usual coaching entourage, as well as his girlfriend, Kim Sears, but he is not expecting to be joined by any of his family. Judy, his mother, is back at home working for television, while Jamie, his brother, did not have a high enough ranking to play doubles here. Murray admitted that family can be a distraction. "It's a bit nicer when you can just concentrate on the tennis," he said. "If you have a few family members who haven't been over to the tennis that much, their expectations of how much they're going to get to see you might be a little different."

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