It was never likely to happen after a serious back operation only last autumn, but Andy Murray's loss to Florian Mayer this week can all but confirm that he does not have a chance of winning the Australian Open this month.
The 3-6 6-4 6-2 defeat to the world number 40 provides a true marker to the Scot's ability to win the forthcoming Grand Slam. Although bookmakers still place him as third favourite, Murray's lengthy time on the sidelines after his operation has put paid to any notion that he will be a serious challenger in the tournament.
He is not at the fitness levels needed to win a Grand Slam; the fact that he only won three of the last 15 games against Mayer proves that he was flagging. And, nor is he near the peak of his tennis powers that are a necessity if he is to beat either Rafa Nadal or Novak Djokovic, his two great rivals that will inevitably be in the latter stages of the tournament.
Whilst these comments may sound overly negative, they should not be viewed as an attack on Murray but, instead, as pragmatic. Although Murray's back condition is not as debilitating as Nadal's knee condition, the Spaniard still needed over seven months out of the game to fully recover. Murray had two months rest before his return to tennis.
Indeed, it is great credit to the Scot that we can even see him competing at the first Grand Slam of 2014. Although he did his best to pass his back operation as 'minor', it was plain to see that the problem was serious. Not only did it force him out of last year's French Open but it was the cause for Murray's obvious unfit state that saw his challenge to retain his US Open crown fall at the hands of Stanislas Wawrinka.
It would be a miracle, therefore, to expect that he will still be in the late stages of the Australian Open given that he was only able to hit a ball in anger just over six weeks ago. The fitness required to win a Grand Slam cannot just come in a six week period; it has to be built up over months of gruelling preparation, whether it be in the off-court season or through the multiple tournaments staged throughout the year. Murray, since his comeback, has been able to train for a month and a half and has played only three competitive matches.
He will know, more than anybody, that his body is not at the extreme levels of fitness that he is accustomed too. He must also know, in his heart of hearts, that it will be a minor miracle to make the quarter-finals, let alone win the thing, given the excruciating levels of shocking heat at the Australian Open.
Given the champion he is, these thoughts will not be at the front of his mind.
"I wouldn't like to say whether I'd be happy reaching the second week," he said in a press conference yesterday.
"I'll have to see how the next ten days or so go. You can get a lot done in that time."
While it would be no less marvellous to see Murray in yet another Grand Slam Final, it would be more pragmatic to look past the Australian Open for more realistic tournament victories. Let's hope his back will not be a hindrance next time around.
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