THE weather forecast for this week's Montreal Masters brings good news and bad news for Andy Murray. The good news is that the temperature is not expected to rise much above the mid-twenties and that humidity will not generally be a problem. The bad is that most of Murray's rivals will welcome the good news even more than the 26-year-old Scot.
While nobody relishes the prospect of playing in gruelling heat and humidity, Murray knows one of the reasons he has enjoyed so much success on the north American hard-court circuit is that his supreme levels of fitness give him an advantage over many of his challengers. Nobody works harder than the world No 2 and his labours have repeatedly paid off at this time of the year.
For most of the top players this phase of the season involves just three tournaments: an opening Masters Series event in Canada (which alternates between Toronto and Montreal), another in the following week in what are often brutal conditions in Cincinnati, and finally the US Open, which starts three weeks from today.
Murray has an excellent record in all three. He has won the Canadian tournament at both its venues, has twice triumphed in Cincinnati (his first success there in 2008 brought him his first Masters Series title) and has loved the US Open ever since he won his only junior Grand Slam title there in 2004. Murray reached his first senior Grand Slam final at Flushing Meadows four years later and ended Britain's 76-year wait for a male Grand Slam singles champion when he beat Novak Djokovic in last year's final.
It might seem strange for a pale-faced and shy young man from Scotland's smallest city to revel in the heat and brashness of North America, but he thrives in this part of the world.
"Obviously, there's really not a whole lot going on in Dunblane," Murray said on a recent visit to New York. "I started travelling when I was 11 or 12. I came over to the States first time and played the Orange Bowl in Miami when I was 11. I started doing quite a lot of travelling and when I got to 15 I moved over to Barcelona, which is a pretty energetic city. Then, I came over here the first time when I was that age and I just really enjoyed it. I've always liked busy places."
Miami, in particular, has become a second home for Murray, who flew to Montreal in the middle of last week after spending 10 days in Florida honing his game and his fitness. The Scot had wasted little time in getting back to work following his Wimbledon triumph four weekends ago, though he did afford himself the luxury of a brief holiday in the Bahamas.
"As Montreal is the first Masters 1000 of the US hard-court season it's hopefully where all the training I do in Miami really starts to pay off," Murray told readers of his website (www.andymurray.com) last week. "I was the first Brit to win this a few years back in Montreal, so it would be great to do it again this year."
He added: "The tennis schedule is very busy throughout the year, but I managed to get away for a few days before heading out to Miami to start my training block for the US hard-court stretch.
"I love Miami. It's great to be able to train there. After spending time playing on grass in the summer, it's important you refamiliarise yourself with the hard-court surface before heading into the US Open Series, and Miami has some of the best hard courts in the world.
"So after 10 hard working days and a short flight up to Montreal, it brings me up to now, the start of another very busy and important few months," Murray added. "I always make sure I am in the best possible shape before every tournament, and that routine hasn't changed, I am relaxed and ready, and can't wait to get out on the match court."
Murray has coped well with heat and humidity ever since his days as a teenager training at the Sanchez-Casal academy in Barcelona. He never wilts in New York, where the daytime conditions can be especially tough, while his best record at any Masters Series tournament is in Miami, where he has twice won the title and finished runner-up once.
"Barcelona was definitely hot when I used to train there, but I don't know if you ever get used to it," Murray said. "It helps to train in warm weather, but it is not easy conditions to play in. If any of the players told you it was easy, they would be lying. It does help to train in hot climates. If I trained down in London throughout the whole year I would spend a lot of time indoors [because of the] cool weather and breezes. To train abroad is definitely a sacrifice I need to make to be at the top of the game.
"If you put the work in, then you feel comfortable going on the court. If you are afraid of the heat, or worried about how it is going to feel, then it's not great. But I know I have trained a lot and I know I have come through a lot of tough matches in warm weather, so it doesn't matter so much to me now."
Montreal will be a first return to the grind following Wimbledon for most of the world's top players, though Roger Federer will not be among them. The 31-year-old Swiss took the unusual step of playing in two clay-court tournaments, in Hamburg and Gstaad, in the wake of his early exit from SW19 but aggravated a back problem in the process.
As usual for a Masters Series tournament, where appearance is mandatory for the top players, the opposition is challenging from the start. Although Murray has avoided the half of the draw featuring both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, he is likely to face some stiff tests if he is to live up to his No 2 seeding and reach the final.
After a first-round bye, Murray's opening match - which will probably be tomorrow or on Wednesday - will be against either Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov or Spain's Marcel Granollers.
Dimitrov, who reached the quarter-finals in Washington last week before going down to Tommy Haas, has lost to Murray twice this year but has emerged as one of the most exciting players of his generation. Granollers, who won the fourth singles title of his career when he triumphed at Kitzbühel on Saturday, lost his first two meetings with Murray but won the third when the Scot retired with back trouble in Rome this year.
All four of Murray's potential third-round opponents - Fabio Fognini, Ernests Gulbis, Feliciano Lopez and Marco Baghdatis - could be tricky. In the quarter-finals the Scot could face Juan Martin del Potro or Milos Raonic, while David Ferrer or Tomas Berdych could provide semi-final opposition.
While Nadal is an unknown factor - the Spaniard has not been at his best on hard courts in the past and it remains to be seen whether his early exit at Wimbledon was simply a blip following his remarkable recovery from knee trouble - the expectation is that Murray and Djokovic (who has won in Canada three times) will be the players to beat over the next five weeks.
The Scot and the Serb have contested three of the last four Grand Slam finals and their fitness and liking for hard courts are big factors. "I find it's more natural for me to move on the hard courts," Murray said. "For all of the guys I think it kind of depends what surface you grew up playing on. I grew up playing on hard courts, so I don't find it as tough on the body as the clay, whereas someone like Nadal might find clay a lot easier on his body."
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