My main message to Andy Murray ahead of the Australian Open: don't get ahead of yourself. If you take anything for granted, especially in a first week that can be dangerous as hell, you'll be out of there quicker than you can say Tsonga. Remember last year. And second, retain the utmost respect for Roger Federer; the best player ever, a genius who has claims at least equal to yours to be the favourite in Melbourne. Those are the key warnings before the first Grand Slam event in too many decades where a Briton – you – is starting as the favourite.
So how can Murray win this first Slam of the year and the first of his career? The simple and misleading answer is by continuing to do what he's been doing – playing out of his skin. His serve is getting better, his groundstrokes are clean, powerful and well placed, his versatility and creativity is right up there. The bulking-up is working. The power is on and the memories of limp exits after falling over, frail, are dimmed.
Andy now also has a great ability to "smell" the court and anticipate his opponents' next shot, and he has the footwork which allows him to act with good effect on that reading of the game. As a returner of serve, he now merits being talked about in the same breath as Andre Agassi, and from me, a guy who worked with Andre for so many years and considers him like a son, that's praise indeed.
And if you want to go down a simplistic numbers route and look at Murray's head-to-head record against the other big players on the tour, you'll find reasons for optimism.
Against Federer, Murray leads 5-2. Against Rafael Nadal, the Spaniard leads 5-1 but Murray won their last meeting, on the hard courts of the US Open semis. Against Novak Djokovic, the Serb leads 4-3 but Murray won the last two meetings. And against Andy Roddick, who is not a bad barometer of the field outside the top four, Murray has a 6-2 career record.
But enough blowing smoke. Let's yank the reins and get real. This is a Slam we're talking about. They're tough. They demand consistency and focus like nothing else. Australia especially requires that you hit the ground running early in the year, which is why we see more "surprise" winners there than elsewhere.
I believe Andy has what it takes to win a Slam, and at some stage become world No 1. He reminds me a lot of Agassi. They both have the street-fighter mentality. Aspects of their play are similar, like return-of-serve success. They both work well with support teams assembled through their own instincts. And they have both been inspired by a strong parent: Andre's father and Andy's mother both understand the game, but at the same time let their kids go.
At this crucial time, Andy now has to take a leaf from Andre's book and refuse to look ahead. There are 127 guys out there who want to be spoilers and knock Murray on his ass and he has to care not one iota for any of their intentions. One match at a time, boy. There were many events when Agassi literally did not know the draw – or want to know it – beyond his next match. He'd see to business and then ask, "Who next?" Murray needs that mindset to stay focused on one step at a time.
Australia would be a good one for him to win. The surface favours him. The crowd will love him because they're as crazy as he is. He has momentum. But he also, from now on, needs to shut his mouth and let his tennis – and only his tennis – do the talking. He really does not need to be emphasising he's no longer scared of facing Federer or Nadal or whoever. He just needs to wait until he faces them and then prove it when it matters. Federer was asked this week about Andy's favouritism with the bookmakers and he said he was surprised. He added: "He's never won a Slam – winning a Slam is a different animal. Andy's shown for a year that he's knocking on the door. He's a good all-round player, has good tactics and he's full of confidence. But not many guys have been able to win Grand Slams over the last few years. Rafa and I have taken a lot of them. It doesn't happen that easily."
Roger is right, right, right. Spot on. In saying that he was not doing anyone down, not playing mind games. Roger doesn't do trash talking. He was just speaking facts, honestly. No Slam is anything but tough.
Since Federer won his first Slam – Wimbledon 2003 – the Swiss himself has won 13 of the 22 played, and Nadal five others. The only interlopers were Roddick (on home US turf, 2003), Gaston Gaudio (on his beloved clay in Paris 2004), and in "quirky" Melbourne, Marat Safin (2005) and Djokovic (2008).
Andy has all the tools to do the job but he must be ultra-careful in week one, and then cool but brave as he goes deep into week two. By brave I'm talking about committing to areas where he can improve (as shown in our graphic above), no more so than with increased use of the volley. He should stand a little closer to the baseline, and come in more. That element of surprise will enhance his game. He can also work on heavy penetrating balls – backhands cross-court as well as down the line – that force opponents to hit defensive returns so Andy can run around and hit his big forehand.
This is certainly Murray's best chance to date of winning a Slam. But don't discount Federer. He may be 2-5 down against the Scot, but the two were finals and the five were not. For true champions, timing is everything. Now let's see what they've got.