A CRUCIAL month lies ahead for Andy Murray that could set the tone for the rest of the year as he bids to add to his two grand slam titles and climb back up the world rankings.
This week's Abierto Mexicano Telcel event in Acapulco will be closely followed by back-to-back Masters 1000s tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami, three competition in which Murray will be looking to bank as many ranking points as possible.
The Scot has slipped to No.7 after his quarter-final defeat at the Australian Open and a loss at the same stage in Rotterdam but knows a good run this week could lift him back into the top five and leave him breathing down the necks of Stan Wawrinka and David Ferrer and No. 3 and No. 4 respectively.
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Chasing ranking points so early in the season is not ideal but Murray, who was due to play his opening match in Acapulco in the early hours of this morning, against Pablo Andujar of Spain, appears to be relishing the task.
After helping Great Britain's Davis Cup team to victory of the United States earlier this month, the 26-year-old is growing in confidence as he continues to build towards 100% fitness following his return after back surgery last September.
"I'd never had surgery before," Murray said as he prepared to face the world No.34 Andujar, who reached the semi-finals in Rio last week, albeit on clay, and pushed the eventual winner, Rafa Nadal, to a deciding set tie-break. "I've had injuries but it's a bit different coming back from an injury than it is coming back from surgery. There's a lot of rehab, it's a pretty long process. I hadn't dealt with that before."
Getting over the pain is one thing, but playing with freedom, mentally as much as physically, is another. However, it seems a bit of a break from the game has done Murray good.
He played well in Melbourne until being beaten by Roger Federer in four sets in the quarter-finals.
His tennis looks sound and, back on his favoured outdoor hard courts, he ought to be feeling good. "[The recovery from surgery] was tough but it was good for me to go through it in some ways," Murray said. "I got to spend a bit of time away from the Tour and maybe appreciated how much I enjoy being on the Tour and travelling the world. I'm feeling better than I was six months ago, that's for sure."
Seeded second behind Ferrer, Murray has a good draw in Acapulco and the prospect of 500 points on offer should be incentive enough.
With Juan Martin Del Potro retiring through a recurrence of his wrist injury in Dubai yesterday, Murray is almost certain to take the No.6 spot in the rankings, and Tomas Berdych, one place above him, is defending a stack of points in the next few weeks.
Murray knows that if he can do well in Acapulco and Indian Wells, where he has struggled in recent years, he will be in a good position come Miami, where he is the defending champion.
The clay-court season is almost a blank canvas as far as points goes so if his back holds up - and so far, so good - he could find himself back in the top four before long, a position that should allow him to avoid the other top-four players before the semi-finals at the grand slams.