Friday 23 March 2018

Murray turns up heat in effort to beat Melbourne hex

Andy Murray has featured in more finals of a grand slam tournament without winning than any other tennis player Photo: SPORTSFILE
Andy Murray has featured in more finals of a grand slam tournament without winning than any other tennis player Photo: SPORTSFILE

Oliver Brown

When Andy Murray identifies a maiden Australian Open title as his "No 1 goal for the year", he leaves little doubt that he means it.

Within a month he will become a father, while the summer promises Wimbledon and the defence of his Olympic gold medal. But it is the thought of his accumulated agonies at Melbourne Park which consumes him like no other.

In the open era, no tennis player, male or female, has featured in more finals of a grand slam tournament without winning than Murray has managed in Australia. The Scot's four-part catalogue of pain at the Rod Laver Arena, where he folded emotionally in the face of Federer's genius - "I can't play like Roger, but I can cry like him," he lamented that night in 2010 - before a hat-trick of losses to the unconquerable Novak Djokovic.

The latest, a fractious four-set schooling by the Serb last year, might have broken Murray's will for good. Perhaps he was the victim of some southern-hemisphere hex, one that mirrored Bjorn Borg's failure to win a US Open despite reaching four finals in six years? It is not in his nature, though, to be fatalistic.

"My No 1 goal is to win here, just because of the number of times I have been close," he says of the tournament that starts next week. "I have made four finals, one other semi-final, but I haven't managed to get over the final hurdle. I hope, if I keep giving myself the opportunities, that I'll be able to."

Seldom, on the eve of his 11th Australian Open appearance, has he prepared so assiduously. Murray has already been in the country for a fortnight, scampering around Perth hardcourts hot enough on which to barbecue a shrimp. "I arrived earlier than ever this year," he explains. "In Perth, it was 43C on some of the days we were practising. The summers here can be extremely tough. There is so much I need to do in terms of staying hydrated, applying the sunscreen and ice towels, taking on as much food as possible before matches. The clothing can help, too. If you're going to last four hours in 40C, you need everything to work well."

His clothing taps into cooling technology favoured by Nasa for its astronauts. He studied the example of Djokovic, who made the final of every event he entered in 2015 bar one, and recognised that even his arduous off-season conditioning work needed to be ratcheted up a level.

Out went his annual Miami boot camp, with its emphasis on bikram yoga, and in came 10 focused days of pumping iron in Dubai. "The season finished late for me, because of the Davis Cup, and I was lifting much heavier weights. I take inspiration from those around me, especially from what Novak is doing. It has been hard playing in an era alongside him, Roger and Rafa, so to catch up with them has been a huge challenge."

The degree of Djokovic's dominance since 2013, extending his lead over Murray in the race for slam titles to 10-2, has been crushing. Even Nadal, the winner of 14 slams in the age of Federer but swatted aside 6-1, 6-2 by the world No 1 in Qatar, can find few words to do justice to such supremacy. "I know nobody playing tennis like this, ever," he said. "It's perfection. When I say perfect, it's not one thing in particular. It's everything."

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