FEW people trip gleefully towards an appointment with a scalpel-wielding surgeon, particularly if they are a top-class athlete.
But, as Andy Murray takes the first slow and careful steps on his road to recovery from a back operation, he is positively excited.
After more than two years struggling with pain and injury, he took the decision to go under the knife months ago. Although the last two seasons have been the most successful of his career, he knew he was not at his absolute best and something had to be done. As he approached Wimbledon, he knew that this was the time to resolve the issue – the surgeon would provide the cure and, all being well, he could get back to his old, powerful and uninhibited self. Then the world would see the real Andy Murray in his pomp.
“I hope I’ll be able to play better than before because, for a couple of years, there’s been shots that I couldn’t hit any more,” Murray said. “I couldn’t play the shots because it was too painful and because I couldn’t generate the power. So, providing the surgery has gone well, it should help me and allow me to be able to play the strokes I want to be able to play and not have to play managing an issue. So that’s exciting for me. If I watch videos of when I was playing five years ago, six years ago, there’s some shots that I was like ‘ahhhh, I’d love to be able to do that’ and I couldn’t any more. So I’m hoping that’ll help.
“It wasn’t so much the serve. It was other shots it was an issue on. And also just general movement. Just not being as stiff or inhibited. I wanted just to be free again in my movement so I guess we’ll have to wait and see how it goes, but I’m positive that if I do all the right rehab and recovery stuff and don’t rush back, that when I do get back on the court I’ll be able to hit shots that I wasn’t able to hit for the last 18 months or so.”
The thought that Murray could reach four grand slam finals, win two of them and collect an Olympic gold medal while coping with a duff back, shooting pains that ran up and down his left leg and using only a selection of his best shots ought to send a shiver of panic down the spines of his nearest rivals.
And the fact that he postponed the surgery until after he had helped Britain back into the World Group of the Davis Cup ought to silence his critics once and for all. The world No.4 had promised to do his national service in the tie against Croatia in September and, no matter how much pain he was in or how much work he had to do just to get himself on court, Murray refused to let his team-mates down. He played ten backbreaking sets over three days, won three points and steered Britain back into the premier division of the international competition.
But it was that week on the clay in Umag that finally pushed Murray towards the operating theatre. As he lay there night after night, being massaged and pummelled by his trainers and physios in order to be ready for the next challenge, he decided he had had enough.
“I decided before Wimbledon that I was going to have the surgery after the US Open,” he said. “Then, obviously, I won Wimbledon so, naturally, my team were like sort of ‘maybe it’s not the best idea to have it’ and I kind of went along with that. But, when I started playing on the hard courts again, it was getting worse and worse. I was getting more and more concerned.
“I was going to have it after the US Open but then, obviously, if I didn’t play Davis Cup it was because I’m ‘not patriotic enough’ so I went and played Davis Cup. I decided definitely during the Davis Cup week because I was in pain during the US Open and then I started playing Davis Cup and it was just so tiring. I was having treatment on one of the nights at, like, 11.30pm and I was, like, ‘this is all day I’m having to deal with this and I don’t want to have to deal with it any more’. And that was it.”
Whether Murray will be ready to turn out for his country against the United States at the end of January depends entirely on all the hard work he is doing now. He is two weeks into the slow rehabilitation process and, as tedious and lonely as the experience is, he will not be rushed back to the courts.
Only when his doctors are sure that he is fully recovered and he is sure that he is fully fit will he make his comeback. That, he hopes, will be in time for the Australian Open in mid-January. Until then, his time will be spent in the gym, swimming pool and weights room, breaking the monotony with the occasional glance at the television and the coverage of the ATP World Tour Finals, which start on Monday in London.
Murray booked his ticket to the Finals back in September but, by then, he had already decided to have the surgery and, as a result, knew he would have to miss the end-of-season jamboree.
In his absence, he thinks the winner will be one of the usual suspects – Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic – but he is not discounting Roger Federer’s chances, even though the Swiss has had a poor year and only grabbed his place in the draw last week.
“Roger’s record indoors is unbelievable,” Murray said. “He plays very well indoors. He has a great record in the finals. There’s some guys that have never been there before. It’s very different – it’s a big stage and you’re there as one of the top players in the world. You’re expected to perform well and play great tennis, so that’s different. That will be a new experience for some guys and against most of the players that are there, Roger’s got a pretty good record against all of them so I think he’ll do fine.”
And, provided his recovery goes according to plan, by the time the finals roll around next year, Murray will be fighting fit and playing even better than he has in the past couple of years.
No wonder he’s excited.