ABU DHABI // Not that the highest reaches of the men’s game lack for compelling narratives heading into 2014, but the return of Andy Murray after a three-month break from back surgery is rightfully placed among them.
Many eyes will be trained on Rafael Nadal after what he called his “most emotional season”. The response of Novak Djokovic, fortified by the acquisition of the celebrity coach Boris Becker, will be watched with similar attention.
Anytime as great a player as Roger Federer begins what looks like a terminal decline is a time to pay heed, too. Those final flickers of the flame can be as beautiful as its firing up.
But Murray? On Thursday night, at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship, despite losing in straight sets to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, he began what is effectively the third stage of his career.
The first was the pre-grand-slam titlist Murray, when the burden of nationality weighed so heavily that he lost his first four slam finals, across five seasons.
Then the breakthrough, although, a bit inconveniently, it came on the wrong continent. His US Open win in 2012 was massive, above all for himself. But little in tennis outweighs the pressure of Wimbledon’s search for a home champion.
So when he broke through there this year, that really was the start of a new life, if not the birth of a new man entirely.
Frustratingly, though, his back surgery put that on hold. Simultaneously, it overshadowed a disappointing quarter-final loss at the US Open, after which John McEnroe – an avid Murray-watcher – observed that he might need a break to let what he had done sink in.
Surgery is not an ideal way to take a break, but it did not hurt Murray significantly to take a little time off, as he confirmed.
“Some parts of it were nice. I got to spend a lot of time at home, which is something we don’t get to do much,” he said. “It wasn’t that difficult for me, mentally, to be sitting because it wasn’t like I was playing one day and twisted my ankle and couldn’t play or my back just went one day. I feel fresher.”
Understandably, then, as he went down 7-5, 6-3, he looked like a man returning, a man beginning anew. It was not that he was moving badly; in fact, in the first set, his movement was remarkably smooth.
He flagged a little in the second, though that, too, was amplified by the sharpness of his opponent and a surface fast enough to have been noted and appreciated by both players. Tsonga’s serve was working and, in attacking the net regularly, his imposing presence more than anything did for Murray.
Tsonga could not find much fault in his game.
“I was happy with everything,” he said. “It’s not easy because the court is really fast, really quick and it’s tough to play from the baseline, so I decided to play offensive. I just played good tennis.”
Murray was not upset, though, as he begins a gradual return to the kind of performances he was reaching over the summer. After his match on Friday, he flies to Doha for the Qatar Open before arriving in Melbourne for the Australian Open.
“I moved well in the first set, especially once I got into the rallies,” he said. “I didn’t feel slow at all. In the second I slowed down slightly, but that’s something that is going to get better by playing matches. I can’t expect to feel great for long periods of matches straightaway.
“But it was a good workout. You want to play your best, but you need to be realistic and patient. I will play better tomorrow than I did today.
“I was hitting the ball OK, moving well for the most part. Moving is the most important thing. I just need to be able to do it for a longer period. I just felt like I hadn’t played a match for a while.”