Murray still plans trip to final despite coaching concerns

Last year's Australian Open finalist is relying on the guidance of the inexperienced Dani Vallverdu, writes Paul Newman in Melbourne
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The Independent Online

His entourage will still be bigger than that of most of his rivals, but when Andy Murray begins his Australian Open here next week he will rarely have had such a lack of coaching experience in his corner.

Alex Corretja, Murray's most senior adviser since his parting of the ways with Miles Maclagan, is not attending the year's first Grand Slam event, which leaves the Scot relying largely on a 24-year-old Venezuelan Davis Cup player with a career-high world ranking of No 727.

Dani Vallverdu has been one of Murray's closest friends since their teenage days together at the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Barcelona. He played doubles with Murray once, at Queen's Club three years ago, but, until last summer, had served mostly as his occasional hitting partner and touring buddy.

However, following Murray's parting of the ways with Maclagan in July, Vallverdu has become an increasingly important fixture in the world No 5's camp. Having finished the season strongly, winning two Masters Series titles and reaching the semi-finals of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals before losing in one of the matches of the year to Rafael Nadal, Murray has clearly been happy to continue with his current ad hoc coaching arrangements. Corretja, who has been working with Team Murray on a part-time basis for three years, was in Miami last month to oversee his winter training camp, but Vallverdu will be the man the 23-year-old Scot turns to here.

"There's a lot of stuff that goes into being a coach," Murray said yesterday in a break between practice sessions. "Obviously Dani doesn't have a whole lot of experience in terms of, say, technical advice, but he's played hundreds and hundreds of matches himself and he's watched a lot of tennis, so in terms of tactical stuff and just small pointers he's very good.

"I've known him since we were 14 or 15 years old. He knows my game, what I like and don't like doing, and what I'm like as a person better than most, so in a lot of ways he can help me. There are obviously limitations there, but for what I feel I need right now I think he can help me a lot. I definitely had good results towards the end of the year.

"Practice has gone really well. I've been happy with it. I've been hitting the ball really well. He has a good dialogue with me – better than I have had with a lot of my coaches in the past. I've found it a lot easier to speak to him."

Judy, Murray's mother, is also here and has previously helped to assess future opponents. "I'm sure she and Dani will go and watch matches together and speak about it a little bit, but I don't have any direct conversations with my Mum about any of my tennis," Murray said. "I'm sure if she's here that's something she's always enjoyed doing – looking at players, scouting, watching them practise and watching their matches."

Mum's initial task might be to check out Karol Beck, her son's first opponent, after Murray was yesterday handed as kind a draw as he could have hoped for. Beck, the world No 104, is one of the lowest ranked players in the main draw other than qualifiers and wild cards.

The 28-year-old Slovakian reached No 36 in the world rankings six years ago but never rescaled those heights after being banned for two years in 2006 following a positive test for a banned drug, clenbuterol. His best performance was a run to the fourth round of the US Open seven years ago, but since 2005 he has won only two matches at Grand Slam events. He was beaten 6-3, 6-0 by Nadal in Doha last week in his only outing so far this year.

"I've never played against him or practised with him," Murray said. "He had a problem with drugs a few years ago. Before that he was solid. He's a tough player. He's talented, so I'll have to be switched on."

The winner will face Spain's Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo (world No 74) or Ukraine's Illya Marchenko (No 78), while Murray's scheduled third-round opponent, Spain's Guillermo Garcia-Lopez (No 33), is the lowest-ranked seed he could have drawn at that stage. Jürgen Melzer (No 11), who is seeded to meet Murray in the fourth round, has lost all four of his meetings with the Scot, including two in Grand Slam tournaments.

Falling this week to No 5 in the world rankings meant that Murray might have been drawn to face Nadal, Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals, but instead he could be on course to meet Robin Soderling, the man who overtook him after winning the title in Brisbane last week. Nadal is a potential semi-final opponent, while Murray could only meet Federer in a repeat of last year's final.

Although Murray will need to put behind him the memory of his most recent Grand Slam appearance – his third-round loss to Stanislas Wawrinka at the US Open was arguably his worst performance at the highest level for nearly three years – he should derive encouragement from his run in this tournament last year, when he played some of the best tennis of his life. He will surely need to rediscover that form, if not better it, if he is to win his first Grand Slam title in a fortnight's time.

The game's two outstanding players have particular reason to want more success here. Nadal, who reduced Federer to tears when he won the tournament two years ago, is aiming to become only the third man in history, after Don Budge and Rod Laver, to hold all four major titles at the same time, while his great rival will be desperate to keep the only Grand Slam title he currently holds. Federer, who ended last year by beating Nadal to win the World Tour Finals in London and started the new one with victory in the Qatar Open, has always held at least one major crown since his first Wimbledon triumph eight years ago.

Although form is often hard to predict at the year's opening Grand Slam event – Arnaud Clement, Rainer Schüttler, Marcos Baghdatis, Fernando Gonzalez and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have all reached the final in the last 10 years – a number of the other top seeds should also fancy their chances. Djokovic won his only Grand Slam title here three years ago, Soderling has started the year in ominous form and Andy Roddick has returned to fitness after glandular fever.

Murray, nevertheless, should be in as good shape as anyone, particularly after repeating his successful preparations of last year by playing last week in the Hopman Cup at Perth, where he was able to acclimatise to the scorching temperatures.

Those players who did not arrive Down Under until the last few days have experienced one of the soggiest January weeks in Melbourne in living memory, although better weather is expected by the time the tournament gets under way on Monday morning.

Practice courts have been at a premium here and Murray's afternoon session yesterday was only his second outdoor practice since he arrived last weekend. Nevertheless, as a top seed he has enjoyed the advantage of being able to practise on the two main show courts, which both have retractable roofs.

"I'm hoping I should be ready," Murray said. "Perth did make a big difference. The first four or five days there it was 35 or 40 degrees and I did quite a lot of training outside just to get acclimatised."

From finalist to first-round exits: Murray's record in Melbourne

2010

Played best tennis of his career to reach final before losing in three tight sets to Roger Federer, having led 5-2 in the third and had five set points.

2009

Made impressive progress until fourth round, when Fernando Verdasco, an eventual semi-finalist, came back to win from two sets to one down.

2008

Was the ninth seed but caught cold in first round by world No 38, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who went on to beat Rafael Nadal in semi-finals before losing to Novak Djokovic in the final.

2007

Playing in his first major tournament after splitting with coach Brad Gilbert, he reached the fourth round without dropping a set before losing epic five-set marathon to Nadal, a match that taught Murray he could live with the very best.

2006

Lost in first round to Juan Ignacio Chela, winning only seven games after appearing to wilt under weight of expectation following breakthrough year.

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