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NEW YORK -- Ah, the wonder of exhibition -- hits and giggles -- tennis. Novak Djokovic reached for a delicate cross-court half-volley, then checked up and hit a sweet between-the-legs behind-the-back shot. Andy Murray, returned the favor, but it drifted wide. Both men, who have been playing each other since the age of 11, smiled. Later, Djokovic obliged Murray with a thigh rub after a particularly long point -- and, in the absence of instant replay on a disputed point -- offered a clever, hand-held re-creation of the ball's trajectory as he saw it.
Actor Ian McKellen, who has played the wizard Gandalf in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, was moved to applaud. There was even a cameo appearance by reigning Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli.
|Novak Djokovic won the exhibition, but the real test begins at Indian Wells later this week.|
Djokovic "won" the 95-minute romp, 6-3, 7-6 (2).
The real thing, as lovely and fluid as it can be, is an absolutely brutal sport.
In a single match, athletes are stretched, over and over, across three dimensions. A point can consist of a dozen or more full-tilt dashes. In Grand Slams, champions are required to play seven best-of-five matches in the span of a fortnight. And it happens for 10 months a year, around the world on a variety of demanding surfaces.
The chronic stress on bending parts -- particularly shoulders, knees and wrists -- is epic. Rafael Nadal exited the Australian Open contorted in pain from a balky back. No. 4-ranked David Ferrer will miss Indian Wells with a thigh injury. Juan Martin del Potro, the 2009 US Open champion, is currently nursing a sore left wrist that threatens to sideline him again; surgery on his right wrist caused him to miss most of the 2010 season.
Even as Murray was coming into his own, in swift succession, reaching the final at Wimbledon in 2012, winning the Olympic gold medal and then his first Grand Slam singles title, the US Open, his back was bothering him. No too long after he won Wimbledon in 2013 -- the crowning career glory for the Scotsman, who became the first British player to capture the title at the All England Club in 77 years -- Murray faced his future.
"Wimbledon was mentally quite challenging, and afterward I felt a little bit flat," he explained earlier at a morning press conference. "Immediately afterwards I was having problems with my back and it was something I had to decide to do. I tried to put up with this for a few more years with it probably going to get worse or try to get it sorted out to be able to play pain free and enjoy being on the practice court and training again."
So he did what no athlete wants to do. After losing to Stanislas Wawrinka in the quarterfinals at the US Open, Murray underwent surgery, the nature of which has never been explained in any specific terms.
There might have been a temptation to try and come back and play the year-end tournament at home in London, but Murray wisely decided to skip the rest of the season and start fresh in 2014. The break, like Nadal's seven-month absence with fragile knees, might prove to be of long-term benefit.
Unlike Rafa, though, Murray did not come hurtling out of the box. Far from it.
He lost his second match in Doha, to Florian Mayer, then fell to Roger Federer in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. There was a relatively easy run through Davis Cup, when he beat Sam Querrey and Donald Young of the United States in singles, but his last two outings have been less than stellar. Murray went out in the quarterfinals at Rotterdam -- to the blazing hot Marin Cilic -- and in the Acapulco semifinals, to rising Grigor Dimitrov.
"Obviously, coming back from surgery is hard," Murray explained. "The first few tournaments back were hard, but my body actually feels good now. Last week I played four matches in four days for the first time. I played three, three-set matches, some long ones which finished late in the evening, and I woke up the next day feeling good for the first time, really, since the surgery.
"I'm starting to recover properly and I feel good now."
Murray was planning to fly to California on Tuesday morning and practice later in the day in advance of Indian Wells. Although he was the runner-up there in 2009, Murray has been to two quarterfinals since -- and been ousted in the second round twice, too. Miami, where he owns a condominium, has been much kinder. Murray is the defending champion there and has reached three of the past five finals.
Djokovic seems to agree with this time of year. He's a two-time Indian Wells champion and has three Miami titles. After a brisk morning run in Central park, he talked about the celebrated North American March double.
"Back-to-back Masters events, it's definitely not easy on the bodies," Djokovic said. "It gives us a little more time between tournaments. Usually in Europe, we have seven-, eight-day tournaments back-to-back weeks. Madrid and Rome, Indian Wells and Miami are a bit more spread out; they're both 10-day tournaments. There is also a four- or five-day rest in between, which allows us to be ready for every match."
Both players seemed to enjoy their New York experience. Before and after the match, they talked about the history of the building, the great boxing and basketball contests that have transpired here.
Operating in exhibition mode, at maybe 60-70 percent, it's hard to assess where Murray's game actually is. It still looks like he's not quite ready to go all-in on his backhand, his go-to shot. But that will come.
Neil Harman, the writer for the Times of London who spends much of his time chronicling the life of Murray, is optimistic.
"Fingers crossed," he said. "It's going to be a process. Slowly, slowly goes it. By Wimbledon, I'd imagine, he'll be back where he was."
Why, that would mean as the Wimbledon champion, a big, big ask.