Murray wins respect in Australian Open

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Andy Murray goes into tomorrow's Australian Open boosted by some remarkable praise and support from the people who matter most to him - his fellow professionals. Andy Roddick and Marat Safin, former world No 1s and Grand Slam champions, both reckon that the 19-year-old Scot can not only go far over the next fortnight but has the talent and mental strength become a force in the men's game.

Murray has faced both Roddick and Safin over the past four days in the exhibition event at Kooyong, former home of the Australian Open in Melbourne, losing to Roddick on Thursday and defeating Safin 7-6 6-2 yesterday in a play-off for third place at the warm-up tournament won by Roddick when he defeated the world No 1, Roger Federer, 6-2 3-6 6-3.

Though the American, still prickly about his straight-sets demolition by Murray at Wimbledon last year, clearly enjoyed his 6-4 6-4 victory it did not prevent him lauding Murray as "a real player, as opposed to just a hitter," adding: "Andy constructs points well and it is always a bit of a mind game when you play him because he is pretty tricky. He has an amazing feel for the game."

Safin, winner of the Australian Open two years ago, considers Murray is "more solid, more concentrated, not scared to do anything, improvising all the time. I think [Murray's coach] Brad Gilbert is doing a pretty good job.

"Andy was pretty consistent all last season and deserves to be where he is right now. Now it's his second year and people know him a bit better, he's not any more a newcomer. But I think he has enough to be top 20 or even top 10."

Clearly delighted, Murray said, "That's where you want the credit and respect to come from; from the players, not anyone else. Last year I would have felt a bit nervous about going on court against guys like Federer, Roddick and Safin, but now I've played them a lot of times I'm not intimidated. It has taken a while, but I'm starting to get used to playing these guys and I feel I've got a good chance of winning. I don't feel as intimidated now by people that I respect. I've grown up a bit, I'm not as shy as I was a year ago.

"Last year I had one way of playing, and when that wasn't going well I basically went into shutdown. I lost my head and didn't really know what to do. Now I have more ways of playing and know how my game matches up against my opponents'. I feel much more comfortable if things aren't going my way now, feel that I can turn things around."

A year ago, Murray went out in the first round, beaten in straight sets by the Argentinian journeyman Juan Ignacio Chela. This time, seeded 15th, he starts against a Spaniard, Alberto Martin, ranked 60, and ought not to have serious problems until the fourth round and another Spanish player, the second seed and fellow young buck, Rafael Nadal. Nadal and Murray were the only two to beat Federer in the 2006 season, Nadal inflicting four defeats on the Swiss and Murray winning at Cincinnati in August, statistics which add extra spice to their prospective match-up. However, Nadal, who missed the 2006 Australian through injury, pulled out of last week's Sydney tournament in his opening match with a strained calf muscle and could be below his thunderous best.

On the same Rebound Ace hard-court surface as the one in Doha where he reached the final eight days ago, Murray will fancy his prospects against the clay-court king.

Another factor in Murray taking a less grumpy view of his life, and one which may be of considerable help in the coming days, is the presence in Australia of his older brother, Jamie, a rapidly improving doubles player who has come into the reckoning for Britain's Davis Cup team; his girlfriend, Kim Sears; and his mother, Judy, for so long the driving force behind him.

"I'm much happier off the court than I was at this time last year, my life is running much smoother," he said. "I feel I've grown up as well, so I can deal with things better and be myself a bit more off court now."

Acknowledging he had performed poorly at the Australian last year, Murray said: "I want to try and improve on that. When everything else off court is in place it makes it so much easier to focus on the things you need to improve. So this year I'm looking forward to seeing how much better I can become."

There is a fresh, young look to the men's field this year at Melbourne Park. In addition to the Federer conquerors, Nadal and Murray, there is last year's runner-up, Marcos Baghdatis, the rising young Australian Chris Guccione and especially Novak Djokovic, the Serb who is the youngest in the top 20, if only by a week from Murray.

At 25, Federer (left) might be classed as slightly senior to this group, though on this surface he also remains much the better as he chases down what would be his 10th Grand Slam champion-ship in pursuit of the best-ever total of 14 by Pete Sampras. Next month Federer will eclipse another long-standing record, the 161 successive weeks that Jimmy Connors ruled as No 1. Even the astonishment of defeat at Melbourne Park would not prevent that, so far ahead is Federer of Nadal, and everyone else, in the rankings.

Federer shrugged off yesterday's loss to Roddick which, coming in an exhibition, does not count on his official record. In fact, the Swiss Alp indulged in some experimental stuff during the match, sharpening the serve- and-volley side of his game, which does not see much action.

"I haven't done it in years," he said, "so it's good to know I can still do it." Federer will begin the defence of his Australian crown against Germany's Bjorn Phau, and pointed out: "I've never beaten him." But, his loss to Phau having come back in 1999, it can safely be discounted.

Australia's hopes of a home champion for the first time since 1976, never high, have become even bleaker with the news that their only real hope, Lleyton Hewitt, has torn a calf muscle.

Though understandably pleased by his victory over an opponent who so regularly dominates him, Roddick was sensible enough not to get carried away. "It needs to be done on a big stage before you put too much emphasis on it," he pointed out. "That said, it's nice to feel you are playing well." The sixth-seeded Roddick, scheduled to face Federer in the semi-finals, may have to manage without the motivating presence in the coaching box of Connors, whose mother, Gloria, died last week. "I'm still not sure whether Jimmy will be coming out to Australia yet," said Roddick.

Two much-respected, experienced coaches who will be on duty are Tony Roche, whose low-key presence has been of much assistance to Federer's way of going about things, and, of course, Gilbert, who enjoyed such success at the Australian Open with Andre Agassi and is hoping to achieve something similar on behalf of Murray. As do we all.

OUTSIDE COURTIERS: Danger men and women

NOVAK DJOKOVIC (Serbia): The 19-year-old is the youngest top 20 player (by a week from Andy Murray) and rivals the Scot, who is a friend, for potential stardom. Won two ATP titles last year and opened season by impressively capturing the Adelaide title.

XAVIER MALISSE (Belgium): Teaming up again with David Felgate as coach has reignited the US-based 26-year-old's career. Landed his first title for almost two years in Madras a week ago, defeating Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals.

JELENA JANKOVIC (Serbia): Further testimony to Serbia's burgeoning power, the 21-year-old, a semi-finalist at the 2006 US Open, won her first nine matches this year before losing to Kim Clijsters in Friday's Sydney final.

SAMANTHA STOSUR (Australia): Home crowd lifted the 22-year-old to the fourth round, her best Grand Slam, a year ago, and singles successes are showing she is more than just the world's No 1 doubles player.