Andy Murray Must Build Confidence Early to Make Deep 2014 Australian Open Run

Matt FitzgeraldCorrespondent IIIJanuary 12, 2014

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 12:  Andy Murray of Great Britain stretches during practice ahead of the 2014 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 12, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Andy Murray is one of the biggest stars in men's tennis when fully healthy, but he is in a precarious position entering the 2014 Australian Open.

Having played just one ATP tournament since undergoing back surgery in September, the reigning Wimbledon champion must string together consistency and momentum in his early matches if he's meant to challenge for the trophy at Melbourne Park.

The last match Murray participated in on the men's top tennis circuit was a second-round loss at the Qatar ExxonMobil Open to Florian Mayer on Jan. 1.

Despite the concerns about him, the 26-year-old still garnered enough respect to be the fourth seed in the season's first Grand Slam event. He's brimming with confidence about his surgically repaired spine but is concerned about the impact not playing has had, per The Independent's Paul Newman:

It is a little bit frustrating because the back feels better, but when you haven’t played matches for four months, a couple of other things hurt and other things stiffen up. However, my back so far has felt very good. It feels much better than it did in Doha.

Beyond the first three matches of what is a rather favorable early draw, the competition is formidable for Murray.

A potential clash with No. 21 seed Philipp Kohlschreiber awaits in Round 4, where the German figures to give Murray problems with his power. There isn't such a massive talent gap, and if Murray is having an off day, Kohlschreiber has the ability to knock him off.

Murray is liable to drop a set in that match against an opponent who has been to the fourth round three previous times at the Australian Open but has just one quarterfinals trip to show for it.

Should Kohlschreiber be defeated prior to meeting Murray, a battle with 6'10" American John Isner would likely loom in the Round of 16. Isner's huge serve and strong forehand will test Murray's incredible fitness and return game—especially with the back condition being a question mark.

Although the American isn't all that consistent and has just one Round 4 appearance here in 2010, he is nevertheless very dangerous.

Then it should be a quarterfinal clash with either Jo-Wilfried Tsonga—who brings many of the same strengths to the table as Isner does—or with the legendary Roger Federer, who's seeking redemption after a lackluster 2013 campaign.

Considering the circumstances, there isn't all that much pressure on Murray to come away with a strong result, but doing so would go a long way in laying the groundwork for a successful season.

No. 2 seed and three-time reigning tournament champion Novak Djokovic certainly isn't counting Murray out, per the Australian Open's official Twitter account:

History has been kind to Murray at the year's maiden major, with trips to the final in three out of the last four years and a spot in the semifinals in the other appearance.

The key is to capitalize on the first three matches and restore some stamina he may have lost having been away from the heat of ATP competition for a significant period of time. If he can get his serve in order, ratchet up his court movement and build confidence, Murray should still be a formidable adversary to the best players in the world in Australia.