Injury could help Andy Murray in bid to win Wimbledon
As Andy Murray prepares to spend the next fortnight following the French Open from afar, he would do well not to think about the last time injury forced him to miss out on Paris in the spring.
Six years ago, having pulled out of Roland Garros with a damaged wrist, Murray tried in vain to make it to the starting line at Wimbledon. Although his coach at the time, Brad Gilbert, urged him to play, Murray wisely decided that discretion was the better part of valour. Even when he did return to competition, in Montreal in August, he was still far from ready. It was not until the autumn that he felt confident enough to play freely again.
This time around Murray is hoping that rest will help him to recover from the lower back injury that has troubled him intermittently for more than 18 months. The last two clay-court seasons have shown him that playing on that surface, because it requires more rotation of the body in order to generate pace, has only aggravated the injury. Now, with Wimbledon just over four weeks away, his focus is on preparing for the grass-court season.
While Murray is hugely disappointed to miss out on Roland Garros – Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro also pulled out after failing to recover from a virus – and will now find it even harder to become world No 1, the consolation is that the French Open, which starts on Sunday, is the Grand Slam tournament where he has had the least success. It is also an event where he has had more than his fair share of physical problems. Two years ago he even chipped a tooth in Paris while eating a baguette.
The Scot understands, too, the dangers of playing when his own body tells him not to. Four years ago he was persuaded to take part in a Davis Cup tie in Liverpool with a sore wrist and was subsequently injured for the next six weeks.
While Murray has never revealed the exact nature of his back injury, Dr Colin Crosby, consultant in sports and exercise medicine at BMI The Garden Hospital in London, said that most lower back problems stem from lumbar discs and the ligaments around them.
"In many cases rest can be the solution, but high-level tennis players just don't have the time for that," Dr Crosby said. "You can treat the pain with analgesics and anti-inflammatories or with physiotherapy, but if the problem keeps returning when you play, the danger is that it can become permanent.
"If this has been troubling Murray for the last 18 months or so it's clear that he's not getting on top of it. However, if it's playing on clay that causes the problem then it's obviously a good thing that he won't be at the French Open."
Murray, who has played in the last 22 Grand Slam tournaments in succession, needed eight pain-killing injections in his back to play at Roland Garros last year, but there is a limit to how often such treatment can be used. "As a general rule I don't like to inject into the same site more than three times over a six-month period," Dr Crosby said.
Surgery can be an eventual solution for disc problems, but Murray will be hoping that he can avoid that. Some players, including Roger Federer, have been able to manage recurrent back problems, although others, such as Andre Agassi, have struggled in their latter years.
One upside of Murray's decision to miss Paris, presuming that he recovers in time for the grass-court season, is that he could go to the All England Club better prepared than he has ever been. With Wimbledon starting just a fortnight after the French Open, the top players usually have precious little time to hone their grass-court game.
"It's a surface we play on for basically four weeks of the year," Murray said recently. "I think the way I played at the Olympics is a good sign of [what you can do] when you do play matches on it. I spent seven or eight weeks on the grass through Queen's, Wimbledon and then through to the Olympics last year and I played some of my best tennis I've ever played."
Federer, who is likely to reclaim the world No 2 position from Murray after the French Open, had encouraging words for the Scot, and said he was sure he would be fit for Wimbledon. "The back comes and goes, as we know," the Wimbledon champion told Sky Sports News. "Clearly only he knows what he has, how much pain he feels, but those are normal tennis injuries to have, those wear-and-tear, niggling injuries. The only problem is if you play too long with something that hurts it's just not so much fun any more."
Johanna Konta is the only British woman left in the qualifying competition at Roland Garros after today's first-round matches. While Konta beat China's Saisai Zheng 6-1, 6-3, Anne Keothavong lost 2-6, 6-3, 6-0 to the Czech Republic's Evan Birnerova and Tara Moore was beaten 6-3, 6-3 by Kazakhstan's Sesil Karatantcheva.
Suffering Scot: Murray's injuries
May 2007 Sustains serious wrist injury playing in Hamburg and misses French Open and Wimbledon
September 2009 Aggravates another wrist injury by playing in Davis Cup and is out for six weeks
May 2011 Suffers ankle injury playing at French Open but reaches the semi-finals
November 2011 Pulls out of World Tour Finals in London after aggravating groin injury in opening match
May 2012 Beats Jarkko Nieminen at French Open despite suffering serious back spasms
May 2013 Suffers recurrence of his back problem and retires mid-match at the Rome Masters. Withdraws from the French Open
Bhupathi plans Asian league
Mahesh Bhupathi, Andy Murray's new manager, is to reveal his plans for an Asian tennis league in Paris on Friday. The Indian doubles player, who retires at the end of this year, is the brains behind the International Tennis Premier League, which will be played in cities across Asia during the off season.