Melbourne: For years, Andy Murray's right hand shot so frequently to his back after arduous or even routine points that it sometimes seemed permanently attached. Murray looked, at times, like an old man, or at least a man far older than 26. (Click here for latest on Australian Open)
His 2013 season was divided into the portion of the year in which he managed the back pain, triumphing at Wimbledon, and the portion of the year in which he shut down his schedule and opted for back surgery. (Also read: Venus Williams knocked out)
Having gone from that historic high to the surgical low, Murray arrived here recently in advance of the Australian Open. In his initial news conference, he was loose and cautious.
Loose in the sense that he cracked jokes. When asked about all the new coaches working with elite players, for instance, Murray compared that relationship adjustment to wooing a new girlfriend, without the flowers. He even smiled twice. (Ferrer, Wawrinka enter second round)
Cautious in the sense that he made it clear that he did not expect to win the tournament and had no earthly idea how far he might advance. He factored in the layoff and the operation, as well as his lack of matches in the new season, and he looked forward into the great unknown of early 2014 and shrugged. He then offered a Grand Slam equivalent of a disclaimer.
"Obviously, I need to be pretty patient with myself and not expect too much," he said. (Li Na cruises to second round)
"But you never know," he added.
Murray is scheduled to face Go Soeda of Japan in the first round. But if that matchup sounds like the perfect way to ease into an uncertain Australian Open, consider the rest of Murray's draw, which reads more like "Nightmare on Batman Avenue," where Melbourne Park is.
Should the tournament unfold according to seeding, Murray, seeded fourth, will face Roger Federer, seeded sixth, in the quarterfinals. Should Murray dispatch Federer and if form continues to hold, Rafael Nadal, the top seed, will await in the semifinals. Their half of the draw is also stocked with, if not sure challengers, then plenty who could mount a challenge, Juan Martin del Potro (seeded fifth), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (10th), Milos Raonic (11th) and John Isner (13th) among them.
Novak Djokovic, the second seed, who is in the other half of the draw, said he considered Murray "a main contender to win" and "one of the main contenders to win every major he plays." But there was simply no way to tell, and there will not be until Murray and his surgically repaired back endure a grueling match or five.
On Saturday, Murray met with reporters in the main interview room, the setting there among the stranger setups in professional tennis, with the players sitting beneath reporters as they answer questions.
Murray appeared unburdened - relaxed, even - and perhaps this was the result of the events of 2013. Before Murray won, Wimbledon had not crowned a British champion in men's singles since Fred Perry in 1936. All those years, all the thousands of questions about the pressure and the spotlight and what it would mean to win, evaporated in the euphoria.
But Murray struggled throughout the remainder of the season when he did play. Stanislas Wawrinka knocked him out of the U.S. Open in the quarterfinals, before Murray elected to have the operation after a Davis Cup competition in September. His back simply hurt too much.
Murray returned at the Qatar Open, which started in late December. He won his first match and fell to Florian Mayer in his second, and his back stiffened up some. He then traveled here to focus on practice in advance of the Australian Open.
He pronounced his health "good" over the weekend. But all the practice in the world, Murray said, could not prepare him for "pressure and nerves and stress and stuff, you know, dealing with big crowds again when you've been away from that for a few months," which "doesn't straightaway feel normal again."
In 2013's Australian Open, Murray advanced to the final, where he lost to Djokovic. His back bothered him even then. He sometimes required hours of treatment after matches.
His back feels better now, although it is difficult for Murray to quantify the improvement. He will know more soon enough.
The so-called Big Four - Murray, Nadal, Djokovic and Federer - have won 34 of the past 35 Grand Slam tournaments. That accounts for nearly the past nine years. The past eight Australian men's singles titles have gone to three competitors: Djokovic, Federer and Nadal.
Murray, no longer a tennis geriatric, is not likely to join them soon, not in 2014 at least.
"You never know," he said.
© 2014, The New York Times News Service