MELBOURNE, Australia – The novelty of being the first British man to win a Grand Slam title in 76 years is about to give way to the reality of being a reigning major winner.
It’s just another reason Andy Murray has found to keep Ivan Lendl in his corner.
Murray’s career-changing win at the U.S. Open in September came shortly after his breakthrough win at the London Olympics, where he avenged a painful defeat on the same court to Roger Federer at Wimbledon.
The 25-year-old Scot said it was the most intense 3 months of his life. He’s had time to celebrate the win and dwell on its significance, and now he is days away from his first Grand Slam event since, and at a venue where he has twice lost in the final.
“Obviously, the last few years I got close, but never managed to get over the final hurdle,” he said. “So whether it was a mental thing, whether it was things in my game I needed to improve, physical things, who knows exactly.
“But now that I’ve managed to do it, I hope that when I’m in those situations again, I’ll deal with them better and put less pressure on myself, which obviously will help me play better.”
Murray’s biggest obstacles to a second Grand Slam remain top-ranked Novak Djokovic, who is aiming for a third consecutive Australian Open title, and No. 2-ranked Federer, who has won four Australian titles among his 17 majors. Murray landed in the same half of the draw as Federer, meaning they could potentially meet in the semifinals.
Djokovic is in the other half and has the more favorable run to the final. In the absence of the injured Rafael Nadal, another Spaniard – David Ferrer – moves up to the No. 4 seeding. Ferrer has never reached a major final, and would likely have to beat Djokovic – if results go according to the seedings – in the semifinals to reach that career milestone.
In recent seasons, Murray has arrived in Australia at the start of the season to answer questions about that long British drought that dated to Fred Perry’s last major win in 1936.
Not anymore. Since Lendl first joined him as coach this time last year, the pair have worked together to hone his game. Lendl lost his first four Grand Slam finals, as well, before going on to win eight majors.
So Murray is confident that Lendl’s guidance will continue to serve him well.
“Having someone like Ivan around me as well – he went through a similar sort of thing – so that’s obviously helped as well,” Murray said. “He’s given me some advice on how to deal with certain things that come with winning big events.”
Murray said it was hard to describe in a few words the difference that Lendl has made to his game.
“We’ve worked on some minor technical things, some mental things, and we’ve obviously worked on tactical things as well,” he said. “But he tries to keep things fairly simple and not overcomplicate things. That’s something that I think, especially at the beginning of my career, I struggled with.”
Federer thinks Djokovic is the favorite at Melbourne Park, where he has won the last two titles.
“He’s probably been the best hard-court player over the last couple of years, even though Murray won the U.S. Open,” he said. “Andy Murray is playing great and only going to get stronger in the next couple of years.”
Djokovic lost to Australia’s Bernard Tomic at the Hopman Cup mixed-team competition last week, but will be taking the Australian Open a lot more seriously.
“It’s a huge challenge,” he said. “I love the Australian Open. That court brings back the best memories of my career. I like the hard court, I like the conditions and I’m going to go for the trophy, of course. I have high ambitions for myself, but I’m absolutely aware that it’s going to be very difficult because today’s Grand Slam is very competitive.
“Andy Murray winning his first Grand Slam title last year also got him to this group of players who are serious candidates to win the Australian Open title.”
While the men’s majors have been dominated by three players in the last decade, there’s more Grand Slam winners in the women’s draw.
Four female players won majors in 2011 and three shared the four trophies in 2012.
Serena Williams has won five Australian Open titles, more than any woman in the Open era, and with a run of 35 victories in her last 36 matches, is among the top contenders again in Melbourne. Her run includes the titles at Wimbledon, the London Olympics, the U.S. Open, the WTA Championship and the Brisbane International last week.
Top-ranked Victoria Azarenka hasn’t added to her Grand Slam collection since winning at Melbourne Park last year, when she beat Maria Sharapova in the final. And she’ll likely have to beat Williams to reach the final after both were drawn in the same half.
Azarenka was the only woman to win her first major in 2012. She was the main beneficiary when Serena Williams lost to Ekaterina Makarova in the fourth round of the Australian Open.
Azarenka has lost 11 of her 12 matches against Williams, including all five last year, but is confident she can turn it around and doesn’t feel any extra pressure to defend a title.
“I would like to win every time we meet. It doesn’t really matter where it is,” she said. “I really mean it when I say that I don’t look to defend anything. I look forward to repeat, to win. Defend, I don’t know. You defend in a war or something, but not in tennis.”
Sharapova withdrew from the Brisbane International with a collarbone injury and said taking the time to get healthy was crucial.
“It’s kind of the way that I’ve always built my career around the fact that it’s very important for me to go into something like the Australian Open believing and knowing that I’m healthy, that I’m confident,” she said.