Time is now for Murray to win Slam

1/25/2010 - Tennis Andy Murray Rafael Nadal + more

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Andy Murray has never been afraid to make changes.

A few years ago, starting out his pro career, Murray axed his agent. Britain's beleaguered Lawn Tennis Association paid Brad Gilbert big bucks to become Murray's coach, sensing it had a special successor to Tim Henman, only for the Scot to cast him aside, too.

He's since gone for glitz, dropping another agent to join David Beckham's management company, and bought a nice red Ferrari, albeit second hand, in December. So long to the bachelor pad in London, traded in for a countryside mansion. An expansive entourage has been shortened, as Murray showed up in Melbourne without a girlfriend, one of his usual fitness trainers, his Web site editor and his assistant coach, Alex Corretja. Murray bid adieu to Fred Perry, the clothing company, linking up with adidas.

Tuesday's quarterfinal match against defending champion Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open goes some way to determining whether he's found the right formula. For all the talent he possesses, Murray, who showed flashes of brilliance in 2009, is still seeking a maiden Grand Slam title.

"He's still a major winner in the waiting for me," ESPN analyst Darren Cahill, a coaching consultant with adidas, said. "It's just a matter of time. I think this year could be a really defining year for him as a whole, so it will certainly be a step in the right direction if he beats Rafa."

The longer Murray goes without a major, though, the harder it gets to end the drought. Dinara Safina knows the feeling.

His more esteemed colleagues all claimed their first Grand Slam titles younger than Murray's 22 years, 8 months. Roger Federer was a fraction under 22, Nadal broke through barely 19, Novak Djokovic conquered Melbourne at 20 and Juan Martin del Potro took New York by storm nearing 21.

Further, of men's players who won a first major last decade, excluding clay's French Open, tennis' most unpredictable Slam prior to Nadal's dominance, only two, Sweden's Thomas Johansson and Croatia's Goran Ivanisevic, were older.

Murray, quick to point out he'll play his best tennis starting at 23, insists he's not feeling any pressure. His early-season scheduling suggested as much.

Murray opted to contest the Hopman Cup, a popular mixed event in Perth, rather than defend his title at the Qatar Open. Britain reached the final, losing to Spain, with Murray upset by the workmanlike Tommy Robredo.

The event carries no ranking points, so Murray slipped a spot to fifth by the time the Australian Open issued seeds. That ultimately meant facing Nadal a round earlier.

Murray hasn't stumbled here. He made light work of towering South African Kevin Anderson, as well as Frenchman Marc Gicquel and Florent Serra. American John Isner provided slightly more resistance in the fourth.

The stats made for interesting reading. Murray registered 32 winners and a paltry eight unforced errors. His first serve, a source of constant debate, clicked. But stats don't reveal all.

Isner, surging yet rough around the edges, held a set point on Murray's serve at 6-5 in the first. Vowing to be aggressive, generally the right tactic against Murray, Isner went for a difficult inside-out forehand, narrowly missing wide. Given that Murray had just sent a nervy forehand into the net, Isner might have managed the moment better.

Three of the unforced errors surfaced in that 12th game, and Murray couldn't buy a first serve. Once he escaped, he cruised.

"He's met every challenge so far," said Cahill. "The first-serve percentage can still pick up a little bit, but he continues to say he serves real well at the big points. It remains to be seen if he can continue to do that when he plays guys like Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Nikolay Davydenko and those types of players."

Nadal, ousting a big server himself on Sunday in the 6-foot-10 Ivo Karlovic, continues to back Murray to win a Slam. His talent and versatility are impressive, Nadal professes.

It hasn't been enough to top Nadal on most occasions. Nadal is 7-2 against Murray. In their last hard-court meeting, in the blustery final of the Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells, Calif., Nadal romped 6-1, 6-2. Murray, mind you, toppled Nadal in the U.S. Open semifinals two years ago.

"I think I've got some tactics that work well against him," Murray told reporters. "I'm playing well. No question about that. I just need to play like I have been, and maybe a bit more if I want to win the tournament."

The Spaniard won an exhibition in Abu Dhabi and competed well in Qatar, a point away from defeating an inspired Davydenko in the finale. He's battle-tested, after encountering the explosive Philipp Kohlschreiber in the third round and handily downing Karlovic.

In Nadal's final news conference of 2009, bowing out winless at the year-end championships in London, he looked like a man who couldn't wait to get 2010 started. A bad knee and problematic abs decimated a season that began with so much promise when Nadal lifted the trophy Down Under. His parents' separation, and subsequent divorce, threw him for a loop mentally.

"You know, you have some ups and downs in your career," Nadal told reporters.

At least Nadal has some majors to console him.

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.