It was the news the rest of the men's game must have been dreading. "I'm not close to my best tennis," Andy Murray said in Doha on Saturday evening. If Murray starts peaking when the Australian Open begins a week today, you can be sure the odds about his winning his first Grand Slam title will be cut even further, the bookmakers having already made the 21-year-old Scot favourite to win the season's first major.
Murray completed his competitive preparations for Melbourne in impeccable style, beating Andy Roddick 6-4, 6-2 to retain his Qatar Open crown and win the ninth title of his career. It capped a highly lucrative first 10 days of the new year. Having also won an exhibition tournament in Abu Dhabi, beating Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal along the way, Murray has already banked $433,000 (about £284,000) in prize-money and probably as much again in appearance fees.
While the world No 4 has maintained his outstanding form of the latter half of last year, there are question marks over all three players ahead of him in the rankings. The No 1, Nadal, whose knees are a permanent concern, missed the latter stages of last season and was comprehensively beaten in Doha by Gaël Monfils. Federer, his predecessor at the top of the rankings, was beaten for the third time in a row by Murray in last week's semi-finals, while Novak Djokovic, the world No 3 and defending Australian Open champion, was knocked out in the opening round of his first tournament of the new campaign.
Murray arrives in Melbourne today and can look forward to a little rest after his busy start to the year followed by practice and fitness work with his entourage (who were described by Roddick on Saturday as "the hardest-working team in tennis"). His rivals have more serious work to do. Djokovic, desperate for match practice, is playing in a tournament in Sydney, Federer will hone his game at an exhibition event at Kooyong and Nadal will be working on the practice courts.
The only cloud on Murray's horizon has been a problem with his back. He has felt soreness in it for the last week and even talked about not playing Saturday's final, though you would never have guessed it from the way the match went. Murray believes that the problem is just down to stiffness brought on by a busy schedule in the opening stages of the new year.
The Scot, who has now beaten Roddick in six of their eight meetings, never looked back after breaking the world No 8's serve to love in the fifth game of the match. Roddick had only one break point, which Murray saved with an ace when serving at 6-2 in the second set. Two points later he had won the match.
Murray told the BBC yesterday that he could still be at least a year away from reaching his peak. "There are still things in my game I can definitely improve and that is what is exciting," he said. "I need to keep working on them when I get my practice weeks throughout the year. When I go on tour I need to make sure I keep fighting and even when I am not playing my best, try to find a way to win.
He added: "My game is a little bit more complicated than just playing at the baseline, because I try to use slice shots. I don't have as much power as some of the other players, so I need to use my brain a little bit more to win points. It just takes a little bit more time.
"Right now I am obviously playing very well, but I still think I can improve my net game. I can definitely get stronger and I just think with more experience you mature, so that when it comes to the big matches you consistently play better all the time. There are quite a few little things I can improve on and that will take a year or so before I'm there."
Although the hard courts at the Australian Open are to Murray's liking, he has been knocked out in the first round in two of his three appearances there. Twelve months ago he lost to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who went on to reach the final. "I feel good going into the Australian Open, but after what happened last year I don't want to get too carried away," Murray told his website (www.andymurray.com).
One player who will not be at Melbourne Park is Maria Sharapova. Last year's champion has not played since August because of a shoulder injury and, although she is back in training, does not feel ready to return to competition yet. The Russian's withdrawal was good news for Mel South, who will take her place in the main draw alongside another Briton, Anne Keothavong.
Flying Scotsman: Murray's rapid rise to the top
Toronto Masters: Semi-finals
Cincinnati Masters: Winner
Olympic Games: 1st round
US Open: Final
Madrid Masters: Winner
St Petersburg Open: Winner
Paris Masters: Quarter-finals
Tennis Masters Cup: Semi-finals
Abu Dhabi exhibition: Winner
Qatar Open: Winner
*AUSTRALIAN OPEN ODDS (supplied by Ladbrokes): 5-2 A Murray; 11-4 R Federer; 3-1 R Nadal; 6-1 N Djokovic; 14-1 J-W Tsonga; 25-1 J M del Potro; 33-1 E Gulbis; 40-1 A Roddick, D Nalbandian, G Monfils, G Simon.