When it comes to Andy Murray in these early days of 2014, it's all about the "back watch."
Will Murray's surgically repaired lower back hold up to the test of rigorous competition? Will the Scotsman be able to continue collecting Grand Slam trophies? Or will the backache that caused him enough pain in his lower spine, hip and leg to require recent "minor" surgery continue to hurt him?
Plagued by a nagging lower back injury for an 18-month period, Murray was up front in revealing he was ending his glorious 2013 -- the highlight of which was becoming the first British man in 77 years to win Wimbledon -- early in order to go under the knife on Sept. 23 in London.
What Murray hasn't been so transparent about is exactly what kind of "minor" back procedure he had done. He's been asked repeatedly to clarify and detail the type of surgery, but he smoothly guides the conversation elsewhere. Of course, he's not so smooth as to hide his reluctance to reveal everything.
A few insiders close enough to the Murray camp have whispered he had disk surgery, but even that doesn't clear up the matter because there are all different kinds of disk surgery.
His first post-operation public appearance was to attend a royal ceremony to receive the Order of the British Empire award on Oct. 17. The honor was bestowed on Murray by Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, who joined fans in showing concern about Murray's back.
"I spoke to him about my back, basically, and how that had been going since I had literally just had the surgery a couple of weeks before then," said Murray, when asked at the Qatar ExxonMobil Open last week what he and the prince shared during a private word. "I just chatted to him a little bit about that. But I think we just spoke for just over a minute, so there's not too much that you can sort of say."
Maybe we should've put Prince William to work as the people's agent to help suss out more information regarding the surgery. Murray would hardly be able to gloss over the specifics to a question directly posed by a prince.
What we do know is that Murray was back on the court for his annual offseason Miami "boot camp," which began only two months after the operation. And he reported the training went well and his back held up under the pressure.
But practice is practice, of course, and matches are an entirely different matter.
Murray rejoined the tour as scheduled for the 2014 season and was in Qatar last week for the first test of his repaired back in competition.
Suffice it to say that while the back appeared to hold up OK -- he did walk away still standing upright -- Murray was hardly in winning form.
His first match was a gimme, a 6-0, 6-0, 37-minute win over Qatari wild-card recipient Mousa Shanan Zayed, who ranks somewhere in the 2,000s. Seriously. No offense to Zayed, who was thrilled just to be on the same court as Murray, but Murray's mother, Judy, the British Fed Cup captain, might've walked away with the win, too.
The next match delivered the reveal, and what we saw was a Murray who is clearly in need of some rust removal. Playing a far more accomplished opponent in Florian Mayer, Britain's finest fought but floundered 3-6, 6-4, 6-2. By the end of the second set Murray was fatigued, and whether it's just a habit by now or not, he was observed holding his back more than once.