Andy Murray has said that he was unlikely to play at the French Open later this month and is facing a race against time to compete at Wimbledon after suffering a recurrence of the lower back injury which has troubled him intermittently for the last 18 months.
The world No 2 had the same problem in Madrid last week and retired during his second-round match against Spain's Marcel Granollers at the Rome Masters, on a day when he should have been celebrating his 26th birthday.
"I pulled out because there was a good chance I wouldn't be playing tomorrow even if I was able to get through," Murray said. "I would be very surprised if I was playing in Paris. The whole year I try to peak for the Slams and get in the best shape possible for them.
"Depending on what happens at the French Open I will obviously do everything I can to make sure I'm 100 per cent for the next Slam, which is Wimbledon," he added. "But we'll have to wait and see."
The episode has echoes of the only previous occasion in Murray's career when he retired from a match on the main tour, which, bizarrely, was also on his birthday. The Scot suffered a wrist injury playing on clay in Hamburg six years ago, after which he missed both the French Open and Wimbledon. If he pulls out of Roland Garros it will be the first time he has missed a Grand Slam tournament since Wimbledon in 2007.
Murray first felt the disc problem in his lower back at the end of 2011 and it troubled him for much of the early part of 2012. He had eight pain-killing injections before last year's French Open, where the problem surfaced again when he suffered back spasms playing against Jarkko Nieminen.
"I think the shots that hurt get exaggerated more on clay," Murray said. "Obviously when it's a back issue, rotation tends to be the problem. On clay, with the ball coming through a lot slower, to generate power you rotate more. There's no pace coming to you from the court and also the ball bounces higher and there's less stability with your movement. So all those things combined don't really help."
The French Open has not been the happiest tournament for Murray. He suffered from back problems during a first-round loss to Gaël Monfils in 2006, injured his ankle against Michael Berrer in 2011 before going on to reach the semi-finals, and suffered with his back against Nieminen last year, though he again recovered to win.
Although the injections helped him through the best run of his career last summer – he reached the Wimbledon final, won Olympic gold and claimed his first Grand Slam title at the US Open – Murray said: "Obviously the injections can help a bit with pain and they can take some of the inflammation away, but they didn't make me feel 100 per cent – and I want to feel 100 per cent. It's been an issue for a while now. I want to make sure it goes away and doesn't become something that I'm playing with for a long, long time. It's not enjoyable when you're playing in pain."
Murray took some rest after being troubled by the back again at last week's Madrid Masters, but said that had made little difference. "There's not one thing that makes it feel much better," he said. "Some days are better than others. In the last couple of years it's been the biggest issue for me.
"The quicker courts help. The lower bounces, a bit more pace off the surface, that helps. There are a few shots that hurt, but I might be playing guys in 10 days' time so I don't want them to know which ones. There are a few shots worse than others. That's why it's frustrating."
Murray, who has won only three matches in his three tournaments on clay this year, will have treatment back home over the next few days before he makes a decision about Roland Garros. The French Open starts on Sunday week, while Wimbledon is just five and a half weeks away.
"The French is 10 days away now," Murray said. "You need to be practising and training 100 per cent before going into a Grand Slam. The French is incredibly physical as well. You need to be 100 per cent for that. It's come at a tough time just now, so I need to make a decision and not do anything silly."
It was clear that Murray had a problem when he moved tentatively throughout the first set, during which he often clutched his back. Granollers, who had saved a break point in the opening game, won the set after breaking Murray to love in the sixth game. The Scot took a medical time-out to have on-court treatment from a trainer after the third game of the second set. When Granollers won 10 points in a row and led 4-1 and 30-0 on his own serve the crowd in the main stadium were starting to jeer and whistle, but Murray's fighting instincts saw him recover to force a tie-break, which he won 7-5, before deciding to retire.
Rafael Nadal, who is aiming to win the title here for the seventh time, beat Fabio Fognini 6-1, 6-3 in his opening match and faces Ernests Gulbis, who took the Spaniard to three sets here in 2010 after knocking out Roger Federer.
Maria Sharapova began the defence of her Rome title with an emphatic 6-2, 6-2 victory over Spain's Garbine Muguruza Blanco. Laura Robson, having lost to Serena Williams the previous evening, resumed her doubles partnership with Lisa Raymond, with the Briton and the American beating Svetlana Kuznetsova and Flavia Pennetta 6-7, 6-4, 10-7.