You can criticize the lack of a proper off-season in tennis on any number of grounds, especially if you choose to ignore the fact that tennis has always been a sport not of seasons but of intervals, the most common ones being the times between the four Grand Slams.
But Andy Murray, currently No. 3 in the rankings, can make a pretty good case for the need for a meaningful off-season as he recovers from back surgery (which he underwent on Monday) meant to redress a recurrent disc/sciatic nerve problem. For about two years, he managed the pain that caused him to either abandon matches (in Rome this year) or miss tournaments altogether (this year’s French Open).
Now that that’s over, Murray will face the challenge of taking what probably will amount to three-and-a-half month hiatus from competition—a break that will certainly kill the momentum he had built up starting at the Olympic Games last summer. It won’t exactly be back to square one for Murray; with two major titles and an Olympic gold medal tucked away, he’s unlikely to wonder, as he must have as recently as the summer of 2012, if he can win the big ones. But the interruption will be certainly raise questions in his mind, starting with the most obvious one: Will he ever be the same player again?
“Sure he will,” the chorus will chirp. Nobody has said that the injury is in any way career-threatening. And Murray himself has stressed that the surgery was minor. But bad backs are tricky, as former Grand Slam finalists Miloslav Mecir and Marcelo Rios can attest, and that shadow of doubt is bound to flicker in the back of Murray’s mind until he banishes it months from now by returning to top form.
Just how long will his recovery take? That’s question number two for Murray, who hasn’t officially announced that he’s pulling the plug on his year. But it’s hard to imagine him skipping the entire Asian tour and getting himself into fighting trim for the ATP World Tour Finals. Would it be wise for him to return on indoor hard courts and have to go all-out against top-shelf competition through what might be five matches in under a week? Certainly not.
The most likely scenario is that Murray will shoot for his customary intense training in Florida sometime after the official ATP season ends in early November, provided his rehab goes as expected. He would then be good to go for the 2014 Australian swing. Murray won’t have played a competitive match since mid-September of this year, but he’s habitually played a tune-up tournament (Brisbane) before the Australian Open. He won’t have to fret about changing a proven formula for success.
It’s impossible to say what challenges Murray will face in rehab or fitness training following his surgery. But we can safely assume that this break in his career will pose mental tests in the early stages of his return. How can it not, as it will be entirely new territory? But in that regard, he can look to help from an unlikely source, his rival Rafael Nadal.
The long, seven-month-plus break Nadal took starting in July of 2012 was the longest period in many years that an elite player had gone missing from competition. But the way Nadal bounced back after that break is likely to prove inspirational to Murray.
This is a theme that the Murray camp and partisans have banged on. His friend and former Davis Cup teammate Jamie Baker went as far as to tell the BBC: “We can’t underestimate how tough emotionally the last 12 months has been, so it’s understandable if he’s a little bit burned out, and this break will give him the best chance of picking up more major titles next year.”
Well, OK. But there’s another factor in play here. Murray stands to lose the 1,270 ranking points he earned in Tokyo, Shanghai, Paris, and the World Tour Finals last year, with no chance to replace them. David Ferrer trails Murray by fewer than 400 points, so he’s a sure bet to replace him at No. 3. No. 5 Roger Federer, No. 6 Tomas Berdych, and No. 7 Juan Martin del Potro are all also within striking distance of Murray. For seeding purposes, Murray will need to come back strong—and quickly—if he returns to the tour Down Under.
Those numbers show how tenuous Murray’s place at the top is, and how much he’s risking with this long if much-needed break.
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