Andy Murray has always stressed the importance of saving his best tennis for the biggest occasions and the 25-year-old Scot put some difficult weeks behind him to make a hugely impressive start to his Wimbledon campaign here yesterday. The problems with his back, the criticisms of former players who doubted the seriousness of his physical problems and a defeat in his only grass-court warm-up match were all forgotten as Murray beat Nikolay Davydenko 6-1, 6-1, 6-4 in just an hour and 35 minutes.
Murray, who will now face either Ivo Karlovic or Dudi Sela, played some stunning tennis. His forehand, which has sometimes been a weakness in the past, was in wonderful shape. The world No 4, showing no signs of any problems with his back, hit a succession of big shots to which his opponent had no answer.
Even more damaging was Murray's sliced backhand. Davydenko, who has always struggled on grass, had little idea how to cope with Murray's low, skidding shots as they bit into the lush green turf.
Murray made only four unforced errors, all of them in the final set, dropped just 12 points on his serve and did not have to save a single break point. Davydenko, in contrast, was constantly kept on the back foot by the quality of Murray's returns and dropped his serve six times.
It was a welcome return to form for the world No 4, who was not at his best in the clay-court season, when he was troubled by a back problem. His grass-court season had also got off to an unwelcome start when he lost his opening match at the Aegon Championships at Queen's Club, where he had won the title twice in the previous three years.
"There had been a lot of waiting around since Queen's and I've been itching to get going," Murray said afterwards. 'I just wanted to go and play. I played well. Once I got ahead of him, I wanted to make sure I didn't let him back in. He's very, very dangerous. He's a very good returner as well. I needed to stay concentrated on my serve and I did it well."
On an increasingly overcast day which featured one stoppage for rain, Murray was clearly in no mood to hang around on a noticeably less than full Centre Court. Whether or not it was because the match was so one-sided, the crowd were subdued throughout.
"Once I had the momentum I didn't want it to stop because of the rain or having the roof on," Murray said later. "I just wanted to try to get off the court, if I could, as quickly and efficiently as possible."
Davydenko has given Murray problems in the past, but the 31-year-old Russian is not the player he was. Injuries have taken their toll on the former world No 3, whose speed around the court used to be his greatest weapon.
The world No 47 was in trouble from the moment he lost lengthy rallies on the first two points. Davydenko held his serve in the opening game thanks to two aces, one of which saved a break point, but from that moment onwards Murray took command, winning nine games in a row. The first set took 30 minutes and the second only 25, Murray clinching it in style with a lovely backhand pass down the line.
Davydenko, to his credit, showed some resilience by holding serve four times in the third set and saving two match points, but Murray was not to be denied. The Scot set up his third match point with a winning serve and secured victory when Davydenko hit a backhand beyond the baseline.
At the end Murray twice pointed his fingers to the sky in celebration. Afterwards he refused to say what the gesture had signified. "It's something for me and the guys that I work with," he said. "I don't really want to go into too much detail because I'll end up getting asked about it every single day."
Asked whether the recent criticisms had given him extra motivation, Murray said: "I just wanted to go out there today, play well, keep my focus and not worry about the other stuff that goes on off the court around this time of the year. I think I did a good job of that."
Karlovic was leading Sela 6-4, 6-4, 1-1 when their match was suspended because of rain and bad light. If Karlovic completes his victory today, Murray will be facing a very different challenge to that offered by his first opponent. At 6ft 10in the 33-year-old Croat is the tallest player ever to reach the world's top 100 and exactly a foot taller than Davydenko. The world No 59 has one of the biggest serves in the game and could be a particularly dangerous opponent on grass.
"It's very hard to get into a rhythm against someone like that," Murray said. "He's made it very difficult for a lot of players over the last five or six years because he serves so well, makes you feel pretty uncomfortable on the court. So there's going to be games where you might not even touch the ball where he's serving, so you need to try and stay in the zone and not lose focus on your service games. I'll need to serve well against him."