It’s possibly the most anticipated moment this weekend at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship.
The world will be watching when Andy Murray steps on the court to take on Jo-Wilfried Tsonga today (Thursday). It will be the Wimbledon champion’s first appearance since a Davis Cup showing in September, after which he ended his 2013 season prematurely due to injury.
Following minor back surgery and weeks of rehab, Murray is finally ready to join the world’s elite at the invitation- only event in Abu Dhabi, to test himself ahead of next month’s Australian Open.
“I feel pretty good. I trained well, prepared well for the season. I did my rehab as best as I could. But we won’t really know until I start playing matches how close I am to being 100 per cent and that’s what I hope to get out of playing in Abu Dhabi,” Murray tells Sport360.
The 26-year-old Scot spent the last few weeks in Miami going through what could be described as a torturous fitness regime.
Horror stories of his time on the Versa-Climber – an exercise machine that mimics the experience of continuous climbing – his extreme workouts and hot Bikram yoga sessions are a common outcome of his preseason training each year but Murray admits that things were a bit more frustrating this time around because of his injury.
“The tennis side of things was hard because obviously I didn’t play for a number of weeks. So that’s a little bit frustrating because when you haven’t played, you have pretty high expectations of what you should be able to do and you need to keep reminding yourself that you need to be patient,” he says.
“The pre-season went well, I didn’t have any setbacks with my back but the tennis at times was a little bit frustrating.”
Although no one wants to sit out a big chunk of the season nursing an injury, the break Murray was forced to take allowed him to mentally switch off from the grind that is the ATP World Tour.
Following his emotional Wimbledon victory, a few months break did have a few perks.
“I think in some ways just being in the same place for a long time, helped. I got to spend five or six weeks at home, and five or six weeks in Miami – I have a place there – so it was nice just being in familiar surroundings,” he admits.
“I feel pretty fresh mentally going into the new season. That’s one of the things when you’re on the tour and you don’t have any breaks, there’s a lot of travelling, you go to the same tournaments, the same places and that can become quite repetitive.
“So it was nice in some ways to be away for a couple of months and hopefully, I will be nice and fresh for the new season.”
The two-time major champion was voted the BBC Sport Personality of the Year last week, in recognition for his Wimbledon triumph that ended a 77-year British drought in the men’s singles tournament at SW19.
The Scot’s relationship with the British public and media has not always been easy but after he made the final at Wimbledon in 2012 and followed it up with a gold medal showing at the London Olympics, Murray’s home crowd started to come around.
His emotional speech after his final defeat to Roger Federer in 2012 and his triumph at the All England Club in 2013 have turned him into a hometown hero and the award he just won is testament to that.
“It was nice at the end of the year to finish it like that. It’s obviously different than what you achieve on the court because it isn’t something decided by the public. So to get the support of the public after a year like I had was very nice,” said Murray.
One man who has been a huge factor in Murray’s success over the past two years is his coach, Ivan Lendl, who captured the last of his eight Grand Slams back in 1990.
What started off as a surprise and odd partnership, turned out to be as fruitful as a coaching relationship can get, with Murray getting the monkey off his back and winning his first major nine months into their union.
“I think the fact that he’s been through the same ups and downs that I’ve had – I had never won a Grand Slam when I started working with him and he was the only other person that had lost his first four Grand Slam finals,” Murray said of Lendl.
“So having him in my corner for that, to talk me through the emotions and how to come out the other side of it, made a huge difference. I have a tremendous amount of respect for everything that he’s achieved on the court so all the things that he says, you’re going to listen to a bit more intently.”
It seems the success of the Murray-Lendl combination has set off a series of shock hires amongst some of the top players as teaming up with an 80s star appears to be the latest trend.
World No2 Novak Djokovic recently added Boris Becker to his team, and Murray says the German will be an exciting addition to the tour.
“Any time you can have past great players involved in the sport, it’s good for tennis. Obviously now we just have to wait and see how it works out.
“To see what changes Becker can bring to Novak’s game and how it will help him. Any time you can get players like that… that involved in the sport… is a good thing.
“I think we’ll see whether or not it is a trend. Right now, there’s a lot of players involved that have won Grand Slams. Michael Chang is working with (Kei) Nishikori now, obviously myself and Lendl, Becker and Djokovic, (Sergi) Bruguera is now working with (Richard) Gasquet… so yes it’s probably happening a bit more and more but there’s still coaches out there that have never played, like Nadal’s uncle (Toni Nadal), that works extremely well for him. It’s just about what works best for each individual player.”
After Abu Dhabi, Murray will head to Doha for his official season kick-off and while the Brit says he’s feeling healthy, he’s being cautious about setting goals for 2014 just yet.
“I think the number one priority right now is to get back on the court playing matches and to feel healthy,” he said. “And once I get back on the court and I’m playing matches and I’m coming through them okay then it’ll be a lot easier for me to decide what I’m going to try to achieve this year.
“Because practice and training have gone well but until you’re actually playing matches, you never know how exactly you’re going to feel and that’s why Abu Dhabi will be a great preparation for me.
“So I can see how my game is and how my body’s feeling against the best players in the world.”