The signs are promising: Andy Murray has been hard at work in Monaco for the past few days preparing for his first clay court event of the season and after a month of doubt and worry about his ailing right elbow, he is safely installed as the top seed for the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters which starts today.
The world No.1 has not played a competitive match for just over a month due to that pesky elbow, an injury he picked up in Indian Wells at the start of March, and even last Monday, he was still not sure whether he was ready to return to the fray.
Speaking after a charity exhibition match against Roger Federer – Murray lost in straight sets but was none too fussed as it was all in a good cause – he told the reporters in Switzerland that it was still touch and go whether he was ready for full-blooded competition play.
“The plans are trying to get ready for Monte Carlo, that’s the goal,” he said. “I’ll practice [in Nice] for the next three or four days, and try and increase the serving. The elbow is a lot better than it was a week ago, but to play a tournament right now would be tough. To do well, you have to be able to play five days in a row, and to be serving a little bit faster and harder than tonight. I’ll just have to see. I’m not sure whether I’ll be ready for Monte Carlo or not.”
But since then, he has worked hard and has been at the scenic Monte Carlo Country Club practising with the likes of David Goffin and Marin Cilic. Against Federer on Monday night, he only dared risk a couple of full-throttle serves; clearly now he feels he is ready to put his serving arm to the test against the world’s best.
The draw has been kind to Murray and, as the top seed, he has a first-round bye and will not play until Tuesday at the earliest. His opening match will be against either Gilles Muller from Luxembourg or the veteran Spaniard, Tommy Robredo. Rafael Nadal, the nine-time champion, has been drawn in the bottom half along with Novak Djokovic who is also making his way back from an elbow injury. Federer, meanwhile, is in the middle of a two-month break after his spectacular start to the year and will not play a clay court event until the French Open at the end of May.
Alas, the current world No.1 does not have the luxury of affording himself time off to rest and recover if he wants to stay there. His opportunity to reinforce his position at the top of the rankings has come and gone in a flurry of illnesses (a dose each of shingles and flu) and his injury woes.
For all that he was the best player on the planet for the second half of last season – he won 50 of 53 matches and collected eight titles between June and November – he had got the year off to a slow start. So, with few ranking points to defend as the 2017 season started, this was his chance to put clear water between himself and his rivals. There were big ranking tournaments to play in Indian Wells and Miami and the chance to bank ranking points aplenty before he had to start defending the nine titles he won over the course of last year. But it did not work out like that.
Murray ran himself ragged getting to the No.1 spot. It had not been in the plans to get to the top by the close of play in 2016 but when the opportunity presented itself, he was not going to waste it.
Yet once the target had been reached, he was mentally and physically exhausted.
His form this year has spluttered and stuttered: a fourth-round loss at the Australian Open, a second-round loss in Indian Wells and no chance to play in Miami due to that elbow injury. He did win the title in Dubai and reached the final in Doha but it was at the top ranking events that he needed to start collecting bucketloads of points.
The clay court season is rumbling into life and between now and the start of June he has 3,160 points to defend. Put another way, if he does not match his results of last year – a semi-final finish in Monte Carlo, a final spot in Madrid, the title in Rome and the runner-up position at Roland Garros – his cushion at the top of the rankings will start to deflate. At the moment, he is 4,045 points ahead of Djokovic, his nearest rival.
By the time he gets to Queen’s Club and the start of the grass court season, he will have six months to defend a further 7,690 points. He needs his serving arm – and the rest of him – to be in good nick for that huge challenge. But at least he is in the draw in Monte Carlo. That is a very promising sign.