IT MAY not have been quite the all-conquering return that his followers have come to expect (when a chap’s Wimbledon win has swept him to an overwhelming success at the Sports Personality of Year awards, his fans expect him to walk on water), but Andy Murray’s comeback from back surgery has given everyone cause for optimism.
True, he finished fifth in a six-man field at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi last week but his first two matches after a three-month break showed that, save for a bit of match play, the world No.4 is fit and ready for the season ahead. To lose his opening match to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is no disgrace – the powerful Frenchman relishes the fast conditions in the Middle East – and, while Murray had been cautiously working his way back to fitness over the autumn, Tsonga had been chasing around the world after ranking points in the hope of qualifying for the ATP World Tour Finals. Tsonga was just sharper on the day and Murray looked like a bloke who had not played a match in three months.
The Scot followed that up with a 6-3, 6-4 win over Stanislas Wawrinka and, in the space of just 24 hours, he seemed to have shaken off some of the rust. It was Wawrinka who stopped him in his tracks at the US Open and, from there, the Swiss racked up another 16 matches before his Christmas break. It was a good test for Murray and one he came through with flying colours. Of more importance was the way he covered the court and the fact that he did not grab for his back after a long rally. It has been a long time since he has played without pain and the world No.4 was clearly enjoying the experience.
“I feel pretty good, a lot better than I did a few months ago,” Murray said. “I just need to play more matches like this because the intensity’s a lot higher than you can get in practice. It was good to get two matches against top players. Everyone needs matches at this stage, especially me. It’s been a perfect start and hopefully I’ll get better.”
But the Abu Dhabi event was just an exhibition – the real work starts now. This week, Murray will be in Doha for the Qatar Open, a tournament he has won twice before and in three visits there, he has only lost one match.
Murray will line up alongside Spain’s Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer, Czech Tomas Berdych and Richard Gasquet of France, the defending champion.
A decent run in the coming days will add that extra sharpness to the Scot’s game in time for 13 January.
His physical fitness is not in doubt, not if Kyle Edmund is to be believed. The 18-year-old Yorkshireman is Britain’s eighth ranked player at No.377 in the world order and was invited to train with Murray for three weeks in Miami during the close season. And the effort almost killed him.
“I expected the worst and the physical side really hits you at first,” Edmund said. “Down the other end of the court I’ve had to concentrate very hard and try to keep up, but to me he looks great. His ball striking is fantastic.”
Certainly Murray’s nearest rivals are not taking his comeback lightly. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then he is the most admired man on the circuit.
His decision to hire Ivan Lendl as his coach at the start of 2012 proved to be a stroke of genius and, in the two years they have been working together, they have achieved everything Murray could have dreamed of and more.
So, just before Christmas, Novak Djokovic took the same route and appointed Boris Becker as his mentor in an attempt to reclaim his No.1 ranking and find a way to close out grand slam finals (he lost to both Murray and Nadal over the summer and those losses hurt). An early positive result was yesterday’s 7-5, 6-2 victory over Ferrer in the Abu Dhabi final, with Nadal beating Tsonga in the third-place play-off. Meanwhile, on Friday, Roger Federer announced that he would be working with Stefan Edberg at the Australian Open and that the Swede would be with him for ten weeks of the coming season. Well, if it works for Murray…
Yet the Scot is not concerned about his rivals and their advisors. He knows that the business of winning matches is entirely down to him – and if he is fit and healthy, he is ready to challenge for the top honours as the new year begins.
“Once you step on court, the coaches can do very little to the outcome of a match,” he said. “It is the preparation where the coaches can make a real difference. It is good to see great players like Novak get some help from Becker who has been there and done it. I don’t know if it is a trend starting here or not. For that, we will have to wait and see for a few years.
“I’m coming back from an injury and I’m not expecting anything. Hopefully, results will come if I’m 100 per cent fit.”