Murray at the crossroads

The Briton's recent dip in form is alarming and he needs to sort his head out now if he is to stay at the top.

When Andy Murray tactlessly declared after his unexpectedly early defeat in last month's Dubai Tennis Championships that he was using the Aviation Club as a practice court for more important issues on the horizon, doubts were expressed about the mental and physical condition of the world No 3.

Those doubts have now become harsh reality as the talented Briton stands at the crossroads of a career which should still have a long way to go. Murray's form since reaching and losing his second grand slam final at the Australian Open has been patchy and his attitude seriously disappointing. Hard courts in North America, whether they accommodate his skills in spring or autumn, have until now inspired the young Scotsman. Three of his four ATP World Masters titles have been earned on transatlantic visits and Flushing Meadows in 2008 was the scene of his arrival as a leading force in the game as only Roger Federer could stop him from the US Open title.

Twelve months ago in the two American showpiece tournaments, Murray reached the final in Indian Wells before triumphing in Miami. This year he was emphatically despatched by Sweden's Robin Soderling in the quarter-finals in California, while his Floridian defence did not even get past the first hurdle. A second round humbling by the American journeyman, Mardy Fish, after the privilege of a first-round bye left Murray looking like a fish out of water searching for reasons why everything has gone so horribly wrong so quickly after such an encouraging start to the campaign.

His predicament has not been helped by Britain's recent Davis Cup defeat to unfancied Lithuania and an ensuing war of words with the former captain, John Lloyd. "I need to start enjoying my tennis again," was his worrying message to his concerned following. "I need to get my head right." If he is in danger of going stale at 22, how can he hope to fulfil the expectations of those who see him as the eventual successor to the evergreen Federer at the top of the world rankings?

His pathetic attempt to defend the bucketload of points he secured in the American Swing last year leaves him going the opposite way in the rankings as a fit-again Rafael Nadal is now assured a rise from four to three in next week's revised list. Murray, one of the game's outstanding tacticians, knows that only he can work out how to restore flagging form and confidence. "I've been very happy off the court but not on it," he disclosed. "But that's where I need to be happy because that's my career. We all go through bad patches. Only I can figure this one out. I need to get back to how I felt in Australia at the start of the season."

The Melbourne tears which dripped from Murray's exhausted face after being denied for the second time in a grand slam final by the all-conquering Federer may have been a watershed in more ways than one. The despair of that defeat - he lost a decisive third-set tie-break 13-11 - led to him failing to defend his title in Marseille in February, to the undisguised annoyance of French organisers, and left him sluggish and uncommitted to the ensuing Dubai tournament, again to the disapproval of sponsors.

To follow that second-round defeat by Serbia's Janko Tipsarevic with a throw-away line that he had travelled to the UAE to "experiment" with certain aspects of his game was tantamount to bringing his sport into disrepute. Murray, who spent his formative playing years annoying establishment figures, has a great deal of rebuilding to do in the next few weeks. A better clay court season than he has become used to expecting is essential to restore his fading reputation before he goes under intense scrutiny in his homeland up to and including Wimbledon.