Of the many words Andy Murray spoke on Sunday to assert he is fit to defend his Wimbledon title over the full course of the next fortnight, three stood out: "You never know."
Once, we did know. We knew Murray and Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic were so far ahead of their peers that in 49 slams during the previous 12 years, they allowed only three interlopers to intrude on their dominance. This is the 50th major since Marat Safin won the Australian Open in 2005 and it may yet mark a significant turning point in the history of the modern game.
Stan Wawrinka was – and remains – the most dangerous of the so-called outsiders to interrupt the four-pronged hegemony, yet the three-slam champion perversely refuses to be numbered alongside them; Marin Cilic, who emerged from a thinned-out field to prevail at Flushing Meadows in 2014, is enjoying an encouraging renaissance; and Juan Martín del Potro, the amiable Argentinian who first flitted across the tennis firmament to interrupt Federer’s reign at the US Open eight years ago, is, it seems, in a state of permanent comeback.
Murray’s situation is of the most obvious interest to the home audience and the flaring of an old hip problem has spread understandable misgivings about his chances. He has had a wretched time of it since usurping Djokovic as world No 1 last November: shingles in Australia, flu in the US, a tender serving elbow in Miami, another heavy cold in Paris and, generally, a lack of conviction on court. Where once he overcame adversity, he has faltered.
Murray has won 21 matches this year and lost nine, but six of those have been to players outside the top 10: Jordan Thompson (90), Fabio Fognini (29), Borna Coric (59), Albert Ramos Viñolas (29), Vasek Pospisil (129) and Mischa Zverev (50), who began the slide in the first week of the Australian Open.
In all of 2016 he lost nine times, winning 78 matches, nine titles, with a second Wimbledon his crowning glory before a third BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award and a knighthood.
So, back to reality, which is where Murray prefers to reside. “You never know,” he said on Sunday, referring to the lingering hip problem. “I haven’t been in that sort of position too often, like only a few days before a slam, and not felt good at all. Hasn’t really happened to me much.
“Obviously this is an extremely important tournament, so you worry a little bit. It’s a little bit stressful if you can’t practise for a few days. You want to be preparing, training as much as you can to get ready and make yourself feel better, especially when you hadn’t had any matches. But [I have] just tried to think positively. I tried to make the best decisions along with my team to give myself the best chance to feel good on Monday. I feel like I’ve done that.”
Soon we will know if Murray and his team have got it right or are putting an optimistic gloss on a situation that is more problematic than they are letting on.
It is four years since Ivan Lendl kept hammering away at Murray – before retreating to the comfort of Florida's best golf courses – that the most effective way to preserve his red-lining physique and add years to his career was to go for the lines when the opportunities presented themselves. That summer Murray added the Wimbledon title to his US Open championship and Olympic gold medal of the previous year. Last year, when Lendl returned to his side, Murray conquered Wimbledon again. In each of those campaigns he raised the level of risk in the key moments of big matches.
However, Murray’s hard-wired inclination is to grind and fiddle. He has such a sophisticated tennis intelligence that he can work his way in and out of trouble with the strong-wristed flick of a wrist for one of those magical, defensive backhand lobs, manoeuvre his opponent across the baseline with power or curving serves, or draw him close before lobbing, and generally wait to finish the point at a moment of his choosing.
Against lesser players it has proved a sound strategy for many years. But that luxury is not often available to him at the highest level – which is Lendl’s point. What he may get away with against Bublik if their match somehow strays beyond three sets in round one will probably be punished more severely in, say, a quarter-final against Wawrinka – if the Swiss can get that far only a third time in his many assaults on Wimbledon – and certainly in a semi-final against Nadal.
Nevertheless, just as Murray is taking nothing for granted about his own game, so those feared peers have their problems. Nadal, for all his magnificence on clay this season, has lost to opponents outside the top 100 on his last four visits to the All England Club. Could the awesome power of the young Russian Karen Khachanov, who briefly inconvenienced Murray at Roland Garros, undo him before the third round; may the No12 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga slip up against the Great Upsetter, Sam Querrey? Will Wawrinka get past Fernando Verdasco?
Murray is owed the respect of a champion and conviction runs through his assertion on the eve of his opening match. No, he said, he would not need painkillers. “I’ll be fine to play seven matches. Things can happen obviously. Players have got injured during tournaments. But, as I am today, I’d be delighted and have no issues getting through.” There is nonetheless a sense that all will become clear earlier than we might suspect.