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.”
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is pain-free and ready to take on the best in the world this weekend in Abu Dhabi, and the Frenchman says he is certain he can bring his A-game in 2014, with the help of his new team.
Tsonga, who suffered a knee injury at Wimbledon last year which forced him to miss the US Open, had ended his coaching relationship with Australian Roger Rasheed last August and has hired French duo Nicolas Escude and Thierry Ascione as his new joint coaches.
And the world No10 believe his new entourage can assist him in achieving his ultimate goal – winning a Grand Slam.
“I’m feeling good. I haven't had any pain in my knees for four weeks now,” Tsonga told reporters in Dubai on Monday, ahead of his first match of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship on Thursday.
“I changed my staff, so I have a new team with me. For a couple of weeks now we’ve worked on my body and my tennis. Everything is going well. I’m sure I will be a better player than last year, so I’m very excited about the new season.
“I made this (coaching) choice just because I really believe that it will be positive for me. With my new team I really believe I can do it (win a Grand Slam).”
Tsonga opens his Abu Dhabi campaign against world No4 Andy Murray, who will be making his first appearance since a Davis Cup showing last September having been sidelined with a back injury that prompted him to undergo minor surgery.
“I’m very excited to play Andy on the first day," the Frenchman said. "It’s going to be a special match for him because it’s going to be the first one since he got injured. I just expect to see how my level is and if I’m fit or not.”
Tsonga, a former world No5, has slipped to No10 in the world following a season that started well with an Australian Open quarter-final and a first Roland Garros semi-final, but was later plagued by injury.
The charismatic 28-year-old exploded onto the scene when he made the Australian Open final back in 2008, but is yet to reach that stage at a major since then.
“For me it’s important to look back and see I’ve already got to a final and to be confident and really believe that I can do it again and maybe do even better than what I did in 2008,” said Tsonga.
“I prepared really well these last couple of weeks. I’m very confident.”
Tsonga has managed to beat each of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Murray in Grand Slams but it’s those four players who have dominated the majors in recent years.
The Frenchman however says he's glad to be playing in this era, claiming he’s been reveling in the thrill of the chase.
“I think it’s better because for me it’s a bigger challenge,” said Tsonga. “Roger, now I don’t know what he dreams about. I dream to win my first major, he’s got already 17.
"Or even Rafa or Novak they won everything. Maybe Novak needs Roland Garros or something like this but they’ve won everything. So for me, it’s even more exciting than for them because I haven’t won a major and that’s my goal.
“It’s never easy. When we play tennis, it’s not about second. It’s not like if you run a 100m. So you never know really how far you are. But the only thing I know is that I did it in the past, I was really close and I did a lot of effort these last couple of weeks on my practice. I still believe I can do that.
“Impossible is nothing – like my brand (adidas) says," Tsonga added. "I know I still have the passion. It’s what makes me dream about majors.”
Looking back to his special run at Roland Garros last summer, where Tsonga carried the hopes of his home crowd all the way to the semis, the Frenchman says it gave him a chance to prove he is just a good a claycourter as he is on any other surface.
“It was special, especially that at the beginning of my career the French people said that I’m not a clay court player," he said. "So for me it was a good chance just to say ‘I can play and you can count on me on clay courts too’.It gave me a lot of confidence and I think I will play better and better on this surface.”
To many players on tour, crossing paths with David Ferrer in a draw is an absolute nightmare.
They know that the Spaniard is a beast, and the only way to tame him is to prepare for hours of grueling tennis because the 31-year-old just never gives up.
Ferrer’s match against Stanislas Wawrinka at the ATP World Tour Finals last month is the perfect testament to that. The world No3 had no chance of qualifying for the semi-finals in London after losing his first two matches, but he still pushed Wawrinka to the limit, playing like there was no tomorrow.
It was Ferrer’s last match of the 2013 season and he admirably, yet unsurprisingly, went down fighting.
But that same relentless Ferrer is the one who repeatedly says he can’t imagine himself snatching a Grand Slam title from the hands of those who have been dominating the majors scene – Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic et al.
The Valencia-resident reached his first ever Grand Slam final at Roland Garros this year and ended the season at a career-high No3.
But when asked whether he sees himself winning a major in 2014, Ferrer simply said: “No I don’t think so.
“Rafael, Novak, Andy and Roger, for the last five or six years they’re the ones. Maybe this year Roger didn’t play so good in the important moments but I think in 2014 it’s going to be the same story for the others and that Roger can win another Grand Slam and will be better than last year.
“After that, there are a lot of young players like (Milos) Raonic or (Grigor) Dimitrov or (Bernard) Tomic, maybe this year they can break through. They have a very good future, I don’t know if this year they’ll be in the top-10 but they have a good future.”
Ferrer crushed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Roland Garros semi-finals in 2013, in front of the Frenchman’s home crowd and under a lot of pressure. But while the tireless Spaniard admits his final showing in Paris has given him extra motivation, he concedes that a repeat performance will be tough to achieve.
“It was my first Grand Slam final and it’s going to be very difficult to make another Grand Slam final again,” says Ferrer.
It’s quite the paradox that a player with such fight can have that little belief when it comes to his own abilities against his fellow top-five players but a quick look at the stats make one understand where Ferrer is coming from.
In 2013, the Spaniard won only three of his 16 matches against top-10 players and is 47-86 lifetime in that category. Another worrying stat from 2013 was that Ferrer triumphed in only two of the nine finals he contested during the season – picking up titles in Auckland and Buenos Aires early in the year.
But Ferrer says such numbers don’t tell the whole story and hold little importance to him when he looks back at his season.
“These statistics aren’t that important,” he said. “Yes I know I lost seven times in 2013 but I tried my best, so what can I do? I lost to great players.
“In 2012, I won seven finals and this year I lost seven finals and won only two but anyway it was a good year and nothing else is important. I went down fighting in every match and that’s what counts.
“I think every year it’s more difficult to be in the top-three, top-four or top-10. I will be 32 years old next year, and I think it’s important not to have any big injuries. My goal is to stay amongst the top players in the world, to be top-eight or top-10 in 2014 – that would be a good result for me.”
Listening to Ferrer discuss his career you realise that that level of content is not hindering his chances at the top but is in fact a real blessing.
His ability to treat each match with equal importance is why he can confidently declare that each time he walks off the court, he knows he has given his utmost.
Looking ahead to this weekend’s Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi, where Ferrer is making his fourth appearance, the Spanish No2 will ironically be facing Wawrinka – the same man he lost to in his 2013 season-closer.
“I will try my best to beat Stan. He’s a very good player. The last match of the season I lost against him so this time I will take my revenge,” joked Ferrer.
“Every match is different and in London it was the last week of the year, it was on an indoor court and now it’s outdoors so for me it’s a different match.
“For me the Abu Dhabi tournament is not a show or a practice for the Australian Open. I’d like to play really well in Abu Dhabi and after that I’ll be really focused for Doha and then Auckland and then Melbourne.
"Of course Melbourne is a Grand Slam and is the most important but I like to take things step by step. For me it’s important to play well in Abu Dhabi.”
Although he’s reached his highest career ranking this year, Ferrer looks back to 2012 more fondly.
“I think 2012 was my best season. It’s true that in 2013 I became No3 in the world and made my first Grand Slam final but in 2012 I played my best tennis. I won seven tournaments, I won my first Masters 1000 in Paris-Bercy. I was more comfortable with my game and I hope that in 2014 I play similar to that season,” he explains.
One thing that will be different for Ferrer in 2014 is his coaching staff. The world No3 made a shock announcement on Sunday telling Sport360° that he has split with his long-time coach Javier Piles – a relationship that has lasted almost 15 years.
“I finished my relation with my coach Javier Piles three or four days ago,” revealed Ferrer. “I am sad because it was a very familial relationship and next year I will begin with Jose Altur along with my same team.
"Now I broke my relation with Javier, it was okay, we didn’t have any personal problems. We worked together for many years and we decided to end the coaching relationship.”
New coach or not, one thing we can count on is that come Thursday in Abu Dhabi, Ferrer will battle Wawrinka just the way he did last month in London. The UAE crowd are in for a treat.
2002 Won his first title in Bucharest
2005 Appeared in his first Grand Slam quarter-final at Roland Garros
2006 Entered the top-10 for the first time in January
2007 Reached his first Grand Slam semi-final at the US Open. Made the Masters Cup final, lost to Federer
2010 Made his first ATP Masters 1000 final in Rome
2012 Won a career-best seven titles including his first-ever ATP Masters 1000 title in Paris-Bercy
2013 Reached his first Grand Slam final in Roland Garros. Ended the year at a career-high No3