When Andy Murray first arrived in Melbourne, he had no idea what to expect. It was not the surroundings that were unfamiliar – this is his ninth trip to Australia – it was just that he had no idea how he would play after a long injury break at the end of last season.
As it turns out, Murray need not have worried, as he is through to the fourth round after a 7-6(2) 6-4 6-2 win over Feliciano Lopez. Next, the Scot plays Stephane Robert, a lucky loser from the qualifying competition and the world No.119. Suddenly a place in the quarter-finals is looking very possible.
The past two years have been the most successful of Murray’s career. Let’s not beat about the bush – they have been the two most remarkable years British tennis has seen since the days of Fred Perry. After winning two majors and an Olympic gold medal, the Muzz is a legend in Blighty.
But, bizarrely, for those two years, he could only play a selection of his best shots; a long-term back problem meant that there were some strokes he just could not play any more, not without agonizing shooting pains running up and down his leg. After months of trying to manage the injury, he bit the bullet and had surgery after the US Open last year in an attempt to solve the problem once and for all.
The back operation went well, as did the recovery, but the one commodity that no player – no matter how rich or successful – can buy is time. And Murray is still only a few matches into his comeback after having spending nearly four months on the sidelines. As a result, he is never quite sure how he is going to feel when he steps onto the court.
Physically, he is fine – and he is clearly relishing the ability to clobber his backhand again – but it is the consistency that is still a bit iffy. That comes with regular matches, with the weekly routine of life on the tour. At the moment, Murray knows he just has to grin and bear it: there will be days when he is playing really, really well and there are going to be days when his game is a little scratchy.
Saturday, though, was a good day. Well, it looked like a good day from the stands, but judging by the running commentary that the Muzz was providing as he took the lead by a set and break, it was anything but. Ever the perfectionist, he will not tolerate sloppiness of any description, and should a groundstroke miss its target or a volley clip the net, he gives himself a serious talking to. The clean bits run along the lines of: “what do you think you’re doing, you idiot”, while the ruder sound bites do not bear repetition. Suffice to say, you would not like to be on the receiving end of it.
Maybe it was the bloke on the other side of the net who was rattling the Scot. The draw sheet said that it was Lopez, but Murray was not altogether sure. Where were the flowing locks? What was with the industrial haircut? And how had he managed to cut his hair and his beard to exactly the same length, making it look as if he was wearing a furry balaclava?
“I was in the ice bath with him after our first round matches and talking to him about his hair,” Murray said. “He got the all-clear from his girlfriend before he did it, no bets or New Year resolutions, but for me his hair was something that made him Feliciano, his hair was Feliciano. He’s a bit different now.”
But if the haircut was different, the rest of F-Lo wasn’t. In seven previous attempts, the Spaniard had only manage to prise two sets from Murray’s grasp, and as the No.4 seed got into his stride at Hisense Arena, it did not look likely that Lopez was going to alter that stat.
The first set was cat-and-mouse stuff until they got to the tie-break, and then Murray pulled rank on the world No.27. Allowing Lopez just two points in that decider, he drew first blood. Disheartened, Lopez took his eye off the ball briefly in the first game of the second set and surrendered his serve on a double fault. That was all the encouragement Murray needed, and proving himself to be stronger from the baseline, more solid on serve and better on the return, he closed out the second set and sprinted through the third. He got better set by set, and with every passing round, he is looking like the Andy Murray of old.