Andy Murray enters the Australian Open with confidence and a swagger after finally winning his first Grand Slam tennis singles championship.
Murray had a breakthrough 2012 after hiring eight-time major champion Ivan Lendl as his coach, securing an Olympic gold medal and beating Novak Djokovic of Serbia to win the U.S. Open. The victory -- following four defeats in Grand Slam finals --has firmed his conviction going into a tournament where he reached at least the semifinals the past three years.
“I do feel more relaxed one week out from a Slam than I have done previously, that’s for sure,” Murray told reporters after winning his second straight title at the Brisbane International on Jan. 6. “I hope that’s a good sign.”
His peers have noticed a change. Janko Tipsarevic, who’s seeded eighth at the season-opening Grand Slam that starts Jan. 14 in Melbourne, described third-ranked Murray as a “totally different animal” at last month’s exhibition tournament in Abu Dhabi.
Murray’s hiring of Lendl “showed his commitment and his strong desire to break through,” according to six-time major singles champion Boris Becker.
“When he did, it was a big, big stepping stone for him,” Becker said in an interview.
The U.S. Open triumph has given Murray “a bit more swagger on the court,” said Darren Cahill, a former Australian tennis pro who used to coach Murray as part of an arrangement with one of the player’s sponsors.
Lendl has also helped Murray improve technically, Cahill said on a Jan. 8 conference call.
“There’s no question that he’s trying to get more weight behind that forehand side of Andy,” Cahill said. Lendl also got Murray to add more variety to his second serve, he added.
Lendl’s biggest influence is on the mental side, 18-time Grand Slam singles champion Chris Evert said on the same call.
“Ivan Lendl was the perfect, perfect fit for Andy Murray because Andy Murray’s attitude and demeanor on the court has completely changed,” Evert said. “Temperament-wise he’s really helped him. He’s just playing so much better.”
With eleven-time major winner Rafael Nadal missing because of injury and illness and Roger Federer yet to hit a competitive ball this year, Djokovic and Murray are favored to win the title at Melbourne Park.
Top-ranked Djokovic is the 6-5 favorite to win his third straight Australian Open, according to U.K. bookmaker William Hill Plc (WMH), meaning a successful $5 bet returns $11. Murray is the 9-4 second favorite ahead of Switzerland’s Federer on 4-1.
Djokovic and Murray, a pair of 25-year-olds separated in age by a week, began their rivalry at age 13. They met in the 2011 Australian Open final, when Djokovic claimed the first of his three Grand Slam titles that season. The Serb won their five-set semifinal in Melbourne 12 months ago.
Today’s draw placed Murray and Federer in the same half, meaning the earliest either can face Djokovic is the final.
After the four majors went to different men in 2012, Murray and Djokovic are best-placed to dominate this year, six-time Grand Slam semifinalist Tim Henman said.
“They really are the two standouts,” Britain’s Henman said in an interview. “Djokovic being No. 1 again, and Murray now ready to take his game to an even higher level.”
Cahill said although it would be foolish to discount Federer, 31, and Nadal of Spain, 2013 may help shape the future of the men’s game.
“We might get an insight into how the game’s going to look for the next five or six years from the results,” Cahill said. “We’re in unknown territory for the next 12 months for many, many reasons.”
Nadal, 26, missed the second half of 2012 with a patella tendon injury similar to the one Cahill said ended his own playing career at 25. French Open champion Nadal, ranked No. 4 on the ATP World Tour, pulled out of the Australian Open last month citing a stomach virus that stalled his rehabilitation.
Second-ranked Federer, who won a record-extending 17th Grand Slam singles title at Wimbledon in July, didn’t play before the tournament as part of a streamlined schedule. Evert said Federer’s effort at Wimbledon may have drained him.
“It’s difficult to find new motivation in his case because he’s won everything,” Becker said of Federer. “Djokovic and Murray have the edge right now.”
On the women’s side, American Serena Williams, ranked No. 3 in the world, is the even-money favorite to win her 16th major championship, 14 years after claiming her first. Top-ranked Victoria Azarenka is a 7-2 shot to defend her title, although a toe injury forced the Belorussian out of a tune-up tournament.
Like Murray, Williams warmed up for Melbourne with a title in Brisbane. That extended the 31-year-old’s record to 35-1 since an upset loss in the first round of the 2012 French Open.
“When she’s on, she’s dominant and unbeatable,” Evert said of Williams. “I don’t know if anybody can really stop her, but you have to remember that we’re talking Grand Slams. They’ve always provided surprises for us.”
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