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When it comes to Andy Murray in these early days of 2014, it's all about the "back watch."
Will Murray's surgically repaired lower back hold up to the test of rigorous competition? Will the Scotsman be able to continue collecting Grand Slam trophies? Or will the backache that caused him enough pain in his lower spine, hip and leg to require recent "minor" surgery continue to hurt him?
Plagued by a nagging lower back injury for an 18-month period, Murray was up front in revealing he was ending his glorious 2013 -- the highlight of which was becoming the first British man in 77 years to win Wimbledon -- early in order to go under the knife on Sept. 23 in London.
What Murray hasn't been so transparent about is exactly what kind of "minor" back procedure he had done. He's been asked repeatedly to clarify and detail the type of surgery, but he smoothly guides the conversation elsewhere. Of course, he's not so smooth as to hide his reluctance to reveal everything.
A few insiders close enough to the Murray camp have whispered he had disk surgery, but even that doesn't clear up the matter because there are all different kinds of disk surgery.
His first post-operation public appearance was to attend a royal ceremony to receive the Order of the British Empire award on Oct. 17. The honor was bestowed on Murray by Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, who joined fans in showing concern about Murray's back.
|A sometimes-painful back is a question mark for Andy Murray early in 2014.|
Maybe we should've put Prince William to work as the people's agent to help suss out more information regarding the surgery. Murray would hardly be able to gloss over the specifics to a question directly posed by a prince.
What we do know is that Murray was back on the court for his annual offseason Miami "boot camp," which began only two months after the operation. And he reported the training went well and his back held up under the pressure.
But practice is practice, of course, and matches are an entirely different matter.
Murray rejoined the tour as scheduled for the 2014 season and was in Qatar last week for the first test of his repaired back in competition.
Suffice it to say that while the back appeared to hold up OK -- he did walk away still standing upright -- Murray was hardly in winning form.
His first match was a gimme, a 6-0, 6-0, 37-minute win over Qatari wild-card recipient Mousa Shanan Zayed, who ranks somewhere in the 2,000s. Seriously. No offense to Zayed, who was thrilled just to be on the same court as Murray, but Murray's mother, Judy, the British Fed Cup captain, might've walked away with the win, too.
The next match delivered the reveal, and what we saw was a Murray who is clearly in need of some rust removal. Playing a far more accomplished opponent in Florian Mayer, Britain's finest fought but floundered 3-6, 6-4, 6-2. By the end of the second set Murray was fatigued, and whether it's just a habit by now or not, he was observed holding his back more than once.
Nevertheless, he took himself back on court to play -- and lose -- a doubles match with partner Nenad Zimonjic just a few hours later.
"I didn't have extremely high expectations, because I haven't obviously played a match for a long time," Murray said after the loss. "So like I say, you don't know exactly how your body is going to respond.
"Today was a good day for me," he added. "I lost two matches, but it's good I got through without any sort of injuries or niggles. Just general sort of stiffness and soreness, getting used to the impact again of playing matches on a hard court, because it doesn't matter how much stuff you do in training or practice, you know, it's just a different intensity, and I needed to play matches."
Interestingly, when Murray was asked about 2013, he not only pointed to the biggest moment of his career, but also mentioned another sign of his maturation.
"I learned a lot this year, as well, because, obviously, I missed the French Open," he said. "That was a very difficult decision for me. But it was the right decision, and that's something I think I probably got better at. Sometimes to make an easy decision is easy, but to make the right one can be difficult.
"Wimbledon was obviously the highlight for me by far, something I have been working towards for a lot of years, a big goal of mine to try and do that," he added. "So to achieve that was nice. Then, obviously, after that I was having some problems with my back and had to have the surgery and had to make that decision, which again was a tough decision, but I think the right one to make at the time."
There's hardly a doubt that Murray would prefer to be in a better position heading into the Australian Open, a tournament in which he's reached the final three times, including last year. But life's little hiccups tend to get in the way and he insists he's going to be pragmatic through this recovery period.
"I think this time I need to be a little bit more patient because I don't know how I'm going to feel playing a five-set match," Murray admitted. "It's obviously very challenging conditions; it's very, very hot there. I'll need to be in good shape for it. This week, and the next 10 days, are also very important to me as well, to train hard and try and get as many matches as possible."