Nearly six months after undergoing surgery in an attempt to cure his long-standing back problem, Andy Murray is at last feeling comfortable with his physical condition. The 26-year-old Scot returns to Masters Series competition in California this weekend for the first time since August and knows he needs to be in the best possible shape for the busiest part of the year over the next four months.
Murray, who meets the Czech Republic's Lukas Rosol in his opening match at Indian Wells, has made a modest start to the year. Since losing to Roger Federer in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open he has led Britain to victory over the United States in the Davis Cup, reached the quarter-finals of an indoor tournament at Rotterdam, where he lost to Marin Cilic, and made the semi-finals on outdoor hard courts last week at Acapulco, where he lost in three gruelling sets to Grigor Dimitrov.
"The first few tournaments back were hard but my body actually feels good now," Murray said. "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."
He added: "It takes time. The last couple of weeks I've really started to feel normal. I'm not saying it's ahead of schedule but I'd say it's pretty much on schedule. I wasn't expecting to feel perfect in January but as an athlete it can be frustrating when you're trying to come back to play your best and you're just not quite there no matter how much training and physical work you do.
"I'm starting to move well again and feel comfortable in my movement. When people describe someone as a great mover, there's a lot of guys that move extremely well but once you get there you need to be able to do something with the ball. I felt like in Acapulco I was starting to get to balls and actually was doing stuff with them, getting myself out of difficult situations in points."
Murray's coach, Ivan Lendl, who will link up with the Scot again in Miami later this month, said that returning from a lengthy absence can be a major challenge. "First you have to be pain-free and you have to convince yourself that you can do things which you were not able to do before," Lendl said.
"You have to get your game back and your confidence back. Sometimes people come back and they either get lucky or they are just that good that they win on the first tournament back. Sometimes it takes a while. You never know which one it's going to be."
With Murray and Federer currently at No 6 and No 8 in the world rankings respectively, the draw at Indian Wells could be a sign of things to come this summer. Murray is in the same half as Rafael Nadal, Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka, the Australian Open champion. Novak Djokovic appears to have an easier passage in the bottom half of the draw, which also includes Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin del Potro.