Forty-nine minutes, 15 games and a place in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open – that was more than a decent day’s work for Andy Murray on a blisteringly hot day in Melbourne.
The world No.4 was ushered into the last eight when Mikhail Kukushkin retired with a hip flexor injury with the score standing at 6-1 6-1 1-0. You could see poor Kukushkin’s point: he had been thrashed from first ball to last, he had failed to hold serve once (he was broken eight times) and he could barely move. Enough was more than enough.
The only slight blot on an otherwise flawless copy book for Murray was that he managed to drop his serve twice. Not that it mattered – he was having his own way in almost every rally. Still, Ivan Lendl, his new coach, may have a word or two to say about that minor hiccup. Lendl does not like carelessness on a tennis court.
Swathed in towels to protect him from the sun, the great man sat impassively at the side of the court, as is his wont. He watches, he inwardly digests and, we presume, he prepares the debriefing speech he will give to Murray in the locker-room afterwards. But by the time Lendl’s pupil was serving for the first set, the whole of Team Murray had relaxed – this was one-way traffic and there was no need to worry. Andy Ireland even appeared to be brushing his shoes (Mr Ireland believes in aliens and, no doubt, he wants to look his best should the mother ship come by to pick him up).
Lendl then had a joke and a laugh with Ireland and that went straight into the reporters’ notebooks: January 23, 2012. 5-1, 15-0 – Lendl speaks. 5-1, 15-15, Lendl laughs. On court. Hold the back page. He also draped a towel over the fixed camera in the players’ box and then put a cap on it. This confused Murray at first. Who was that extra bloke sitting with his team? Then he saw the becapped head spin round 360 degrees. Perhaps it wasn’t a real person after all.
Up in the TV commentary booth, the whole concept of Lendl telling gags appeared to throw Jim Courier into a flat spin. He shared a locker-room with old Stone Face for years as they travelled the world together and in all that time, it never occurred to Courier that Lendl was funny. Strange, maybe; but funny? No. Anything, but that. So how on earth, Courier wondered, did Murray and Lendl get on together?
“On court, people described him as robotic,” Murray explained, “and that’s something I’d like to get better at. I’m a bit more emotional, more up-and-down. But off court, we have a similar sense of humour.”
At this point, Courier stopped Murray in his tracks – he wanted proof. If Lendl was such a funny guy, Courier wanted a sample of some of his best material. “I promise you, none of them are clean enough for TV,” Murray said with a grin that spread from ear to ear. Then again, Courier’s view of Lendl might be tempered by the fact that in four meetings over the course of a career, the American failed to win a set. His recollections of Lendl are hardly a laugh-a-minute.
But back to the serious stuff: Murray is now through to the quarterfinals and stands two matches away from his third consecutive final. Monday’s brief spell on court may have conserved his energies but it was not quite enough to keep him ticking along in championship-winning form.
“You just need to make sure that today and tomorrow you hit enough balls to make sure you don't lose any rhythm,” Murray said. “Because there were no rallies out there, I need to make sure I move around a little bit so I don't stiffen up in any way. But you can't look at it as a negative. At this stage of the tournament to be off the court in 45 minutes or so isn't bad.
“I thought it was best he retired because it was pointless. He wasn't running. The people probably weren't enjoying the match that much. I certainly wasn't because nothing was happening. There's no real good points or anything because he couldn't move properly. Sometimes it's best just to stop.”
However, in his current mood and with Lendl – Mr Chuckles to those in the know – to guide him, there seems to be no stopping Scotland’s finest.