The new year has not even been rung in yet, but for Andy Murray the 2014 season has started already. The Scot has wasted no time in getting down to business at the Qatar ExxonMobil Open, which starts tomorrow and will be his first tournament of the new campaign.
Having completed his commitments at an exhibition event along the Gulf coast at Abu Dhabi on Friday, Murray was due to practise here last night at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex in preparation for his first competition since undergoing a back operation three months ago.
After opting for surgery in the hope of curing the lower-back problem which had troubled him for the previous 18 months, Murray had always aimed to return in time for the start of the new season. He began his rehabilitation programme at home, where he took advantage of some of the medical facilities just a few minutes' drive away at Chelsea's training ground, and stepped up his work this month at his traditional off-season "boot camp" in Miami.
It was only four weeks ago that the world No 4 felt strong enough to start playing points in practice, but the progress he has made was evident last week in Abu Dhabi, where he played two matches against top-10 opponents. While it is usually unwise to read anything into the results of exhibition matches, Murray's defeat by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and victory over Stanislas Wawrinka did at least confirm that the 26-year-old is on track with his recovery.
"It was good to get two matches against top players," Murray said. "Everyone needs matches at this stage, especially me. It's been a perfect start and hopefully I'll get better."
Murray should enjoy more top-level competition here at an event which often features the strongest field of any tournament in the build-up to the Australian Open, which starts in just 15 days' time. With most of the leading men choosing not to compete in the days immediately before a Grand Slam tournament, this week is when many make their only serious outing before heading to Melbourne.
The other tournaments in the first week of the new season both feature just one top-10 player each – Roger Federer is competing in Brisbane and Wawrinka will be in Chennai – while the field here comprises five leading lights in Rafael Nadal (world No 1), David Ferrer (3), Murray (4), Tomas Berdych (7) and Richard Gasquet (9).
Nevertheless, Murray could not have wished for an easier reintroduction to tournament play. Yesterday's draw handed him a first-round meeting with Mousa Zayed, a Qatari wild card ranked No 2,099 in the world who lost his most recent match to the world No 1,269, Britain's Scott Clayton, 6-0 6-0. Thereafter Murray could play Florian Mayer in the second round, Fernando Verdasco in the quarter-finals and Ferrer in the semi-finals.
Nadal, who beat Tsonga 7-6 6-3 in Abu Dhabi yesterday, is seeded to face Berdych in the other semi-final. Before that, however, he will have to win a first-round match against Lukas Rosol in their first meeting since the Czech shocked the Spaniard in the first round at Wimbledon last year.
Oddly enough, the two men also meet in the doubles, with Rosol and Pablo Andujar taking on Nadal and Francisco Roig, aged 45. Roig, one of Nadal's coaches, has played just once on the tour since partnering the world No 1 in their only previous appearance together four years ago.
If Murray's expectations will be tempered by the fact that he is returning after surgery, he should be encouraged by the fact that he usually plays well after taking a break. Earlier this year he won the Aegon Championships at Queen's Club and Wimbledon in the immediate aftermath of an enforced break when his back problems led to his withdrawal from the French Open.
Murray's record at the start of a new season is particularly impressive. Since losing to Ivan Ljubicic in the final here in 2007, he has competed in the first week of the new season on four occasions – and won the title each time. He triumphed here in 2008 and 2009 and took the title in Brisbane in 2012 and 2013.
The Scot also has a fine record at the Australian Open, having reached the final in three of the past four years. In 2010 he lost to Federer and in 2011 and 2013 he was beaten by Novak Djokovic, who is not playing in any official tournaments before Melbourne, but beat Ferrer 7-5 6-2 in the Abu Dhabi final.
If the surgery proves successful, there is no reason why the Scot should not add to his Grand Slam collection, which currently comprises the 2012 US Open and 2013 Wimbledon titles. He achieved his two greatest successes despite the back problems which have dogged him intermittently over the past two seasons.
Dan Evans is also starting his 2014 campaign here. The 23-year-old from Birmingham beat Michael Shabaz, of the United States, 6-0 6-4 in the first round of qualifying and now meets the Czech Republic's Jan Hernych.
What Murray faces in 2014
Recaptured world No 1 ranking at the end of a remarkable 2013 season in which he won two Grand Slam titles after returning from a lengthy injury absence. Should extend his lead over the next month as he will have no points to defend until February.
Has taken bold step of recruiting Boris Becker as head coach. Finished 2013 on a high despite losing world No 1 ranking to Nadal.
Enjoyed his most successful season in 2013, but has followed trend of appointing new coaches by turning to Jose Francisco Altur, who replaces Javier Piles.
Juan Martin del Potro
Back up to No 5 in world rankings — his highest position for more than three years — after his best run since winning 2009 US Open.
After dispensing with Paul Annacone, has recruited Stefan Edberg to his coaching team in hope of reviving flagging fortunes. Will start working with Edberg at the Australian Open.
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