A frightening message to the rest of the tennis world came out of the Khalifa Tennis complex in Doha shortly after the one-sided final of the Qatar Open on Saturday: Andy Murray is still nowhere near reaching his peak. Murray was excited to make that revelation as he discussed the near-flawless performance he produced to overwhelm and demoralise Andy Roddick 6-4, 6-2 to claim the ninth title of his burgeoning career.
Five of those tournament victories came last year which began encouragingly and ended superbly for the British No 1. Few who saw the way he dismantled Roddick's formidable serve-based game would doubt he can surpass that total this season. The Scotsman will arrive in Melbourne tomorrow morning favourite in the eyes of many experts to take the Australian Open title currently held by Novak Djokovic and won three times in the last five years by Roger Federer.
He was guarded against making too bold a statement about his prospects because he was in similarly upbeat mood 12 months ago after winning in Doha only to fall at the first hurdle of the opening grand slam on the calendar. "I am not going to start making predictions after what happened to me last year," he said, recalling his defeat by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the unheralded Frenchman who went all the way to the final in Melbourne before losing to Djokovic.
"But it is safe to say I'm feeling really good and full of confidence." Abu Dhabi has played a big part in boosting Murray's belief that a first grand slam title is attainable. Victories over Federer and Rafael Nadal in the six-man exhibition tournament in the UAE capital earlier this month convinced the Scot that he can now compete equally with the world's elite. He took that bullishness into the Doha semi-final with Federer, who he knew was itching for revenge for a sequence of recent defeats, and he outplayed the former No 1 after losing his one and only set of the tournament on a poor line call.
That left him on a high before facing Roddick, despite the pre-match worry of a back strain which he had treated with a cluster of suction pads leaving large circular bruises which he happily showed off. "It's under control, I think," he said. "I'll just have to keep a close eye on it in Australia." There was no evidence of any physical handicap as he dealt magnificently with the Roddick serve that had worked so effectively in the four earlier rounds.
"I didn't feel like I gave him that many chances to hit winners," he reflected. "When you are that comfortable at the baseline it makes the rest of the game so much easier." It was the Murray serve which again caught the eye, though, as it matched up comfortably to the more renowned delivery of his opponent. Only one break point conceded in the 71-minute final and that was duly saved to prevent him from being broken at all in the entire tournament.
"If I serve like I have been this week I expect to do well in Australia," he declared. "I have been pleased with the way it has worked for me, both this week and in Abu Dhabi." The world No 4 is also pleased with the way he has eased back into the groove after the close-season. "There is a tendency early in the year to be stiff in your movement and mis-hit one or two balls, but I was moving well and hitting the ball very cleanly," he enthused.
"That's what pleased me the most. I have won against two very good players and I will be looking to keep that going in Australia. "The exciting thing for me is that I don't think I am close to playing my best tennis. I still think feel I can play better. I have to make sure that I go into the big tournaments staying focused. "I know now that if I play my best then I am capable of beating the best guys.
"That gives you confidence going into big tournaments knowing that some of the matches are in your hands." Final word goes to Roddick who took his painful defeat with grace. "I don't think the question is if Murray will win a grand slam it is when," he said. "He has done everything but win one at the moment I am sure that I am in the majority in thinking it will happen." firstname.lastname@example.org