The life of a professional athlete is a precarious thing.
One minute you're happily carrying out your preparations for a major tournament, the next minute those meticulous plans are thrown into disarray. Which is exactly what happened to Andy Murray this week at the Rome Masters. He retired injured at one set all against Marcel Granollers because of a lower-back injury and, in his post-match press conference, stated that "as it is, I'd be very surprised if I was playing in Paris".
The French Open begins in nine days' time and Murray will decide over the next few days whether or not he will appear at Roland Garros. His situation illustrates perfectly the tightrope which every professional athlete walks with regards to fitness. Rarely, if ever, will a top athlete be 100% fit. On almost every single occasion that a sportsperson walks out to compete, he or she will be carrying an injury of some sort.
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It is knowing how to manage these omnipresent niggles that is the real skill. When exactly do you push on through it and when do you pull back, have a couple of days off and let it settle down? It's the million-dollar question.
This is the ultimate Catch 22 because, if you want to compete with the best in the world at your chosen sport, you must be prepared to push your body to its absolute limit. This, though, makes it a dead certainty that you will suffer injuries along the way. Being able to recognise where that fine line between peak fitness and injury lies is a real skill. It is such a fine balancing act that it is almost impossible to get right every time. Those who do will cope most successfully with the rigours of life as an athlete.
Murray has been able to achieve the balance remarkably well over the years. He is one of the fittest players on tour and has had to contend with relatively few injuries during his professional career. Prior to his retirement in Rome on Wednesday, he has had to quit during a match only once before in 529 matches on tour. His first retirement, coincidentally six years before to the day, was in Hamburg and was because of the wrist injury which ultimately kept him out of the game for several months.
Murray revealed that he has been coping with his back problem since 2011. That may seem an unimaginably long period of time to carry an injury but, in fact, it is commonplace for athletes to contend with specific problems for years at a time, with the injury often only abating after retirement from full-time sport.
It is still too early to say whether Murray's pessimistic assessment of his chances of playing the French Open will prove to be accurate and if he will, indeed, be absent from the second grand slam of the year. The world No.2 is not averse to moaning and groaning his way through matches, but the fact that he felt that he couldn't complete the match this week is certainly a worry. His gut instinct clearly told him that this injury was more serious than most of the aches and pains that he tolerates. Often your gut instinct is right.
The Scot has had numerous injections in his back which, he admitted, have helped but haven't solved the problem. I had cortisone injections in a foot during the Olympic qualifying period for London 2012 and while, like magic, they made the discomfort disappear almost immediately, in fact, they only mask the pain. Injections are nothing more than a short-term fix which cannot, and should not, be relied upon in the longer term.
It is depressingly common for a sportsperson to wake up every day in some kind of pain. In the latter part of my career it would take me a good half-hour each morning before I was walking like a spritely 20-something athlete rather than an 80-year-old granny.
Every athlete develops a pain threshold which allows him or her to tolerate the majority of day-to-day injuries. I became used to having a dull ache somewhere on my body as a constant backdrop to every training session.
Murray will spend the next few days weighing up the pros and cons of playing in Paris. On the one hand, it may be his best chance of winning on the red dirt as none of the other big three – Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer – have displayed the consistency this year which have been their hallmarks of previous seasons. Yet Murray will be loath to do anything which may jeopardise his assault on the grass courts of Wimbledon. If playing the French Open is likely to compromise his chances at the All England Club next month, then you can be sure he will not be in Paris next week.
There is no definitive answer to Murray's dilemma. The best-case scenario is that he could have two more grand slam titles on his cv in seven weeks' time; worst case he could still only have one and may have exacerbated his back problem to such an extent that he is unable to defend his US Open crown in September.
Only Murray himself can decide, but one thing's for sure: he will have a few sleepless nights before he reaches a decision.