"Andy Murray maps out a schedule to capture his elusive first grand slam"
It's a start for Murray.
Andy Murray's sense of realism is among his endearing traits. So when he says of Roger Federer, "at Wimbledon, he is still going to be favourite for the next few years", he is hardly mouthing platitudes.
It is the most tacit acknowledgment of the Swiss's pre-eminence. Only last week Murray dreamt of toppling him in the Australian Open final; now, two days after Federer's 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 win, the Scot acknowledges (not for the first time) the gulf between them.
Murray, up to world No3 once again, is also reciprocating the sentiment of the Swiss genius, who said after his fourth Melbourne triumph and 16th slam that the chasing pack of hungry young contenders "have made me a better player".
No wilting flower of Scotland, Murray reckons he is leading the chase. He only rarely stretched Federer but he gets his next chance to prove in a major that there is substance to his faith at Roland Garros in May, then Wimbledon a month later. By then he and everyone else will know if Federer, still only 28, is the main man going into a possible clean sweep in the US Open at Flushing Meadows in August, where he took Murray apart in 2008.
There is a level of mutual self-improvement at work at the top of the men's game that can only benefit the king and his subjects, and Murray has set himself a flexible schedule to prepare for the 2010 slam season. "Marseilles [from 15 February], Dubai [22 February]," he reckons, "so long as I'm physically fine, that is the plan. Play there and then go over to Indian Wells [8 March] and Miami [22 March] after that.
"It's making sure that I don't over-play too much at the start of the year because the clay court season into Wimbledon is very busy. Monte Carlo [12 April] is not on the schedule for me if things go well in Miami. I want to make sure I have a couple of weeks getting ready before I play my first tournament on it. Last year I had only four to five days and I need to learn a lot of things and go over to Barcelona [19 April]."
He sees Rafael Nadal as the clear threat on the clay of Paris – if fit. "On the hard courts Roger plays great, but there are guys who can win against him if they play their best. But, if he is fit and motivated and his body holds up, which is the most important thing, then he can go on. Look at someone like [Lleyton] Hewitt, who has just had hip surgery. Roger has never had surgery. He has kept himself in good shape and, if his body holds up, there's no reason he can't play for another four or five years."
Murray's own game is in good fettle, but clearly it was imperfect in the Melbourne final. "I would liked to have played better further up the court," he said of his uneven fight with Federer.
It was self-evident over two sultry weeks that, whenever he was asked to find another gear, from the first match to the last, Federer knew where to look in his kit bag. Murray made the mistake against him of sticking rigidly to a pre-match plan to hammer Federer's backhand, his perceived if negligible weakness; he also remained hypnotised for long stretches on the baseline, faltering in mind and foot as Federer drained him of the certainty that had been welling up in Murray over six impressive matches.
Thus transfixed, the young Scot morphed from opponent to target. Despite the struggle of the long third set, this was among Federer's most impressive slam victories, although tougher than in New York 17 months previously when he gave Murray a towelling in his first slam final.
Defeat for the second time by the player he continually refers to as "the best player of all time" exposed a critical flaw in Murray's embryonic game, a reluctance – deep-rooted in his DNA – to gamble, even in extremis. He will not have heard, of course, the millions screaming at their TV sets as he declined one juicy volley after another. He may listen yet to that clamour.