The past two years have seen the breakthrough of Andy Murray. The Scottish superstar has captured his first major, his first Olympic gold medal and, of course, his first Wimbledon.
However, one obstacle Murray has yet to conquer is the Australian Open, where he has finished as the runner-up three of the past four years. Coming off back surgery, Murray faces an uphill battle to unseat three-time defending champ Novak Djokovic, to whom he lost in 2011 and 2013.
Indeed, Bovada lists Murray as the fourth-favorite on the men's side at 12-1 odds, and even British expectations are a bit repressed:
A quarter-final spot would equal success for Andy Murray at the Australian Open, says Barry Cowan. http://t.co/dQIWz22HTz— Sky Sports Tennis (@SkySportsTennis) January 10, 2014
Despite that, there are reasons to believe Murray can make a run at his first title Down Under.
For one, he has avoided Djokovic's half of the draw. Starting in the round of 16, Murray would face John Isner, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal until the finals. Those are difficult opponents, to be sure, but Murray is undefeated against Isner, has won three of the past four meetings against Federer and has not faced Nadal since 2011.
In three tuneup matches, the results have certainly been uneven. Murray is 1-2, and he lost to Lleyton Hewitt in two tiebreaker sets at Kooyong. However, as Simon Briggs of The Telegraph illustrates, Murray's satisfaction with his fitness after three months off was the most important takeaway:
“My back feels way, way better than it did before the surgery,” said Murray after he came off the court. “It feels much better than it did in Doha. I stiffened up a bit after the first couple of sets there – it was cold – but the last few days in practice my back has felt much better than even it did a couple of weeks ago."
Murray’s support staff confirm that they are no longer having to stack up the hours in extra rehab after each match – a painful and gruelling ritual that everyone had to put up with for the best part of two years. It was while he lay on the treatment table last September in Umag, the venue for Great Britain’s victorious Davis Cup play-off against Croatia, that he reached the end of his patience. The grisly moment could be put off no longer.
Match sharpness does take time to regain, and Murray will only have two straightforward matches before he will likely face 26th-seeded Feliciano Lopez in the third round. And while his 2012-13 form would make him favored over the likes of Federer and Nadal at Melbourne, there are certainly doubts about how soon he could recapture that.
Any Australian triumph starts with complete health, and in that regard, Murray appears as though he is back. According to Russell Fuller of BBC Sport, being able to play pain-free may allow Murray to get stronger as the tournament progresses:
A favourable early draw should allow Murray to clock up some miles in the first week, at which point life would get significantly tougher. He could run into last week's Auckland winner John Isner in the fourth round, Roger Federer or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarter-finals and then the world number one Nadal in the last four.
If Murray's back stays strong, then he has little to lose here in Melbourne. He is already a Wimbledon, US Open and Olympic champion and could be very hard to live with on the quicker surfaces of Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows later in the year.
How far will Andy Murray advance at the 2014 Australian Open?
That "nothing-to-lose" mentality applies to Murray's 2014, as he has built up a nearly interminable supply of goodwill after delivering a Wimbledon victory to British fans. Unlike his fellow stars, there is little pain or pressure in Murray's performance this fortnight.
Murray is truly a wild card in this tournament, but while an early exit is possible, a deep run and another shot at Djokovic seems equally likely.