Australian Open - Countdown: The chosen one?
Eurosport - Sun, 13 Jan 16:57:00 2008
Rivals are singing his praises, pundits are predicting greatness and his odds for a maiden Grand Slam title in Melbourne have been slashed in half.
TENNIS 2008 Australian Open training Andy Murray - 0
Starting with the opening day of the Australian Open on Monday, 2008 could be the year that Andy Murray justifies all of the hype.
The British number one started the season in stunning fashion with a title in Doha and is being billed as one of the best bets - if not the best bet - to steal the year's first major from twice defending champion Roger Federer.
"I think he is going to have his chances to have an unbelievable year, but it is early to speak about that," conceded world number two Rafael Nadal, who eliminated Murray in a dramatic 6-7 6-4 4-6 6-3 6-1 fourth-round duel in last year's tournament.
"I think he has everything to be one, two, three, four or five in the world," Nadal added.
The 21-year-old Mallorcan star is again in the same half of the draw as his younger British rival, but this time both men would have to reach the semi-finals in order to have a chance to repeat last year's classic clash.
"I've never been more content before a Slam," said the rejuvenated Murray, who spent much of last season sidelined by wrist and back injuries.
The man from Dunblane has reason to be confident.
After having overhauled his coaching team, formerly led by famed American mentor Brad Gilbert, the 20-year-old British prodigy spent an intensive off-season of training before storming to the title in Qatar in the first event of 2008.
He followed up the victory in Doha with two wins from three matches in the invitational Kooyong Classic, looking as though he had mastered the scorching Melbourne heat - temperatures climbed well over 100 degrees Farenheit during Murray's two triumphs - as much as he had his opponents.
"He started the season very well," Nadal acknowledged.
Perhaps the only thing keeping Murray from having his break-out year in 2007 and reaching the year-end Masters Cup were the injuries, the Spaniard added.
Despite missing both the French Open and Wimbledon due to a wrist injury suffered in Hamburg on his 20th birthday, the Scot still finished just outside of the top-ten last year and came within one victory of earning that final Shanghai berth.
A place in the top-five in 2008 now not only seems like a possibility, but a heavy likelihood.
"I think that's realistic, in my opinion, because he's very talented player and he has a lot of potential," said world number three Novak Djokovic, a long-time rival of Murray from their days together on the junior circuit.
"I have known him all my life. Last year he had these problems with the injuries. It was not easy for him to hang in there. He almost reached the Masters. He was just one match away."
While Murray sat through more than three months of rehabilitation last season, it was Djokovic who took the ATP Tour by storm in '07.
The Serbian number one, just seven days younger than his Scottish friend, burst onto the scene last year by winning a pair of Masters titles, reaching the semi-finals of both the French Open and Wimbledon, and making it to the US Open final before falling to Federer at the last hurdle.
But if he's able to have an injury-free campaign, there seems to be little that could prevent Murray from matching or even improving on Djokovic's 2007 antics in the new year.
"He wants to prove himself. I think he's going to make it," Djokovic said.
"Of course, if he stays clear of the injuries and remains healthy, he has all the elements and all the things he needs to be there, to be a top-five player.
"I think he proved that many times in the past two years."
So high are the expectations for Murray in Britain, that former Davis Cup team-mate and British number one Greg Rusedski has backed the Scot to reach the world number one ranking sooner rather than later.
"He is playing the best tennis of his career and, to my mind, right now he is the third best player in the world," the former US Open finalist told the BBC.
"If he continues as he is, he can be the number one and win a major in the next few years."
The claim that Murray - currently ranked ninth in the world - is the third-best player on the planet would probably be disputed by Djokovic, owner of the number three ranking since last July.
But Rusedski is adamant that only Federer and Nadal can rightfully claim to be better than the top-ranked Briton.
"Only they are above him at the moment."
Now in the eyes of many bookmakers, only Nadal and Federer are rated more likely to claim victory in the year's opening Grand Slam in a fortnight's time.
Murray's odds have split from 20-to-1 to 10-to-1 in the last week alone, with a few bookies giving him a better chance than Djokovic to win in Melbourne.
Eurosport head commentator Simon Reed offered justification for this development in a recent interview with Sport magazine.
"Andy Murray's beaten Federer before and is playing better than ever and I genuinely believe he has the game to win in Melbourne," Reed said.
Murray did beat the Swiss at the Cincinnati Masters in 2006, and his record against the longtime world number one is an admirable 1-1.
"But I do fear his defensive game could cause him problems if it gets very hot in Melbourne," said Reed, voicing Murray's principal concern in the past - fitness.
"If Murray gets involved in back-to-back matches that drag on, I fear for him. But if he can get matches over with quickly he can definitely make the final."
Before he can take a place in the last round, the Briton has to reach the second round, which will be no easy task as in-form Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga stands in Murray's way.
The 22-year-old up-and-comer, who beat former world number one Lleyton Hewitt on his way to the Adelaide semi-finals last week, ended the Grand Slam career of former British one Tim Henman in the second round of last year's US Open.
Tsonga, who started last season at 212th in the world but has since climbed to 38th in the rankings thanks to a highly athletic, almost acrobatic style of play, is a threat to cause an upset in nearly any round of a major.
But if Murray does manage to get past the flamboyant Frenchman and then go onto snake his way through the draw to reach his first-ever Grand Slam final in Melbourne, Roger Federer will almost certainly be waiting on the other side of the net.
"That would be a great final," Reed concluded. "Murray would give a very good account of himself, but Federer would still win. He's just on another level."
If Tsonga defeats Murray tomorrow (highly unlikely) some "experts" might commit suicide.