Scotland’s finest has only played five matches so far in his comeback from back surgery – and three of them have been non-competitive exhibitions – and he has won just two, but the Wimbledon champion is beginning to feel like himself again.
On a blisteringly hot Friday afternoon in Melbourne, Murray lost 7-6, 7-6 to Lleyton Hewitt at the AAMI Classic, another exhibition event held at the old Kooyong Stadium. He did not move particularly well but that was more to do with his lack of match practice than any lingering effects of the back operation he had in October. In fact, his back is feeling just fine – it is the rest of him that aches as he gets used to regular match play again. After the draw was made yesterday morning, a draw that offered him a very inviting path to the quarter-finals at least, Murray was beginning to feel excited.
“Playing in 40 degree heat over five sets is a massive test when I have really only played one match in a regular tournament – the first match in Doha was nothing,” Murray said cautiously when the subject of winning the Australian Open title was mentioned. “I have practised well – I have put in the work and the training on the practice court. But once you get on the match court, that’s a different story and we will see how I am after the first or second match. If I get through, we will see how it goes. If I get myself into the tournament, stranger things have happened.”
He will begin his campaign against the veteran Japanese, Go Soeda, the world No112. He once hit the dizzy heights of No47 but that was more than 18 months ago and now aged 29, Soeda’s best days have probably gone.
“I have never played him before,” Murray said. “He had a good 12 months about a year ago but seems to have struggled a bit in the last few months. But he is solid, a solid player who doesn’t make too many errors, good backhand, so I’ll need to be on it.” With a qualifier to face in the second round, another veteran in Feliciano Lopez probably waiting for him in the third round and the injured John Isner seeded to meet him in the fourth round, Murray’s chances of getting a few wins under his belt are looking good. Matches are what he needs at the moment and if he builds up a head of steam, he may well be ready for Roger Federer or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarter-finals.
No player would wish for a four-month lay-off to recover from an injury but as Murray reflected on the events of last season, he thinks that his time away from the courts has done him a world of good. By the time he reached the US Open last September, he was clearly in pain every time he played while mentally, he was still struggling to come to terms with all that he had achieved at Wimbledon. Opting for surgery to cure his longstanding back problems turned out to be a very wise move as now, despite having been away from home for two months already and with no plans to go home for a few months yet, he is fresh and raring to go.
“Playing matches in these conditions is tough,” he said. “Just being back and playing in front of a lot of people when you haven’t done it for three months, it’s different to playing on a court when there’s no-one there. But in terms of the travel to tournaments, I definitely feel refreshed in that respect. I’m away for basically five months, it’s a long period and maybe if I hadn’t had the break I’d be going into that thinking that’s a tough, tough period but I feel good just now.
“My back feels way, way better than it did before the surgery. That is what is very pleasing for me just now. The rest of the body hurts a little bit because I haven’t played and that is the thing – it is a little bit frustrating because the back feels better but just because you haven’t played matches for four months, a couple of other things hurt, other things stiffen up, but my back, so far, has felt very good. It feels much better than it did in Doha [at the end of December]. I stiffened up a bit after the first couple of sets there – it was cold – but the last few days in practice my back has felt much better than even it did a couple of weeks ago.”
A couple of hours chasing around after Hewitt yesterday provided a decent workout and his back passed the test with flying colours. Now he has a couple of days of practice before business begins in earnest at Melbourne Park – and in practice, he has been pitting himself against the best and surprising himself with just how well he has been playing.
“My level will need to rise but in practice I have played well this week,” Murray said. “I have played some good sets against Tsonga, Hewitt, Berdych, Davydenko, I am going to play Juan Monaco tomorrow and Nishikori on Sunday. I am playing with good players and I am absolutely fine in practice – I have held my own and I have played well. I am not as far away as I maybe thought I was a couple of weeks ago.”
Don’t go telling everyone, but Murray, ring rusty and all as he is, might just be ready to create a bit of a stir at Melbourne Park in the coming two weeks.