The road from surgery to full fitness has been a long one but Andy Murray believes the journey is almost over. Nearly eight months after under-going an operation to cure a long-standing back problem, the 27-year-old Scot said here at the Rome Masters that he was feeling almost back to his best physically.
His game, too, is at last returning to the level that secured the Wimbledon title for him last summer. Although he has not reached a final or beaten a top-10 player since his victory over Novak Djokovic ended 77 years of home disappointment at the All England Club last July, Murray’s performance in pushing Rafael Nadal to the limit in the quarter-finals here on Friday night was arguably his best since starting his comeback.
“I don’t feel like people respected the severity of what it’s like to have back surgery,” Murray said after his 1-6, 6-3, 7-5 defeat. “It’s a hard thing to come back from. It takes time. I feel like now I’m getting close to where I want to be. That’s pleasing. There are a couple of big months ahead.”
Murray is particularly relieved to be feeling in good shape on clay, which was the surface that aggravated his back problem the most. “Because of the way I was feeling, it was hampering some of my shots,” he said. “When you have pain when you hit the ball or are about to make contact with it, you get distracted from actually hitting it.
“This was probably the best I’ve hit the ball for a while and it’s the best I’ve felt physically since the surgery. I’ve been starting to get there a little bit over the last few weeks. The beginning of the year was tough for me in that respect. It was still a bit of a feeling-out process.”
With the French Open starting a week today and Wimbledon following four weeks later, the timing of Murray’s recovery is as sweet as that of his double-handed backhand, which brought a succession of winners as he outplayed Nadal in the first set.
Nevertheless, Murray admitted that he still has a little way to go before recovering all his powers of endurance. He led 4-2 in the third set but faded in the closing stages as Nadal ended the match the stronger player. “He finished the match incredibly well,” Murray said. “Physically I can still get better and push myself a bit harder. I will need to if I want to beat these guys.”
Nadal, who knows all too well what it is like to come back after a lengthy lay-off through injury, believes that Murray will soon be back to his best. “The important thing is that he’s able to practise well,” the world No 1 said. “His level is really high, no doubt about it, and he will be one of the toughest opponents to beat.”
Although Murray made a decent showing in his second comeback tournament in January at the Australian Open, where he lost in the quarter-finals to Roger Federer, he has struggled to recover his best form for most of this year. He has regularly got into winning positions in matches but then failed to finish the job.
“Sometimes it was maybe through a lack of matches and a lack of confidence and some of it was also a bit physical,” said Murray. “The first three months were never going to be easy. A lot has also happened in the past two months aside from coming back from surgery. It’s been a tricky few months. I was expecting to start playing better around this time, to start feeling physically better and be in a better place.”
One of the side issues that had made calls on Murray’s thinking time has been the search for a new coach after his split with Ivan Lendl. The Scot has given the appointment plenty of thought and has not given up hope of bringing in someone before the French Open.
“I’m going to speak to a few people in the next few days,” he said. “It depends a little bit how quick somebody might want to do the job. It’s not just about money or getting a contract. Someone might say they really want to do it and come straight away and some people might want to make sure there’s a water-tight contract in place before we start working. It depends a little bit on the person. It’s certainly not impossible.”
The French Open is the only Grand Slam tournament where Murray has not made the final but he said he was excited to be playing at Roland Garros again, having missed out last year after injuring his back here.
“I feel like I’ve played some of my best tennis in the Slams in recent years,” the world No 8 said. “A lot of that has been down to physical strength. I need to make sure I’m on it from the beginning of matches and don’t make any slow starts. I’ve got an opportunity to do well there.”