To talk of men's tennis in the past few years has been to talk of gripping rivalries and epic matches. Those have been produced by the ability and consistency of the top players, but also enabled by their remarkable capacity for playing a heavy schedule year after year without serious time off because of injury. The hole created last year when Rafael Nadal missed nine months shows how important the players' health has been in allowing this period to unfold the way it has.
But the big four have been looking a little creaky recently -- there's Nadal's knee, Roger Federer's back, and now Novak Djokovic's ankle. Andy Murray was last seen hobbling around on the court during the final of the Sony Open in Miami, but he might be the healthiest of the bunch right now. Here's a checkup of each of them.
Nadal has a knee problem. People keep asking him about his knee, and he's tired of talking about it. "Talking about my knee every day is not helping me," he said, sounding weary. "If something is going very wrong that doesn't give me the chance to compete, I will let you know."
Part of why Nadal is uncomfortable is that it sounds churlish to complain about injuries when you're winning so much. He is coming off a title at the BNP Paris Open in Indian Wells, and going for a record ninth straight title in Monte Carlo. "I cannot say I'm not 100 percent when I won three of the four tournaments that I played since my return," Nadal said. "The other players would say that I am arrogant."
His triumphant return spells that it's the usual Nadal-dominated clay season for most observers, but for the Spaniard, his time off the tour means playing these clay tournaments again feels anything but routine. "A lot of big emotions happened for me in the past, but this year is probably more special," he said.
He had missed competing at something, Nadal told reporters in Monte Carlo, and had tried to substitute the urge by playing a lot of golf -- and got a lot better at it.
But will the king of clay get any competition in the next few weeks? Nadal says he doesn't expect as much from himself because his body is still readjusting to the tour, and would be surprised if he did as well as years past. Of course, that's also what he said at Indian Wells.
As for how the knee really is? It's not perfect, though "getting better every day."
Djokovic's participation in the Rolex Monte Carlo Masters this week was in doubt until practically the last minute after the world No. 1 turned his ankle during Davis Cup competition last week. He reported being "really positive and strong" after the initial tests came back, insisting that the injury will not be a problem by the time the Madrid and Rome Masters come along. But to risk it by playing Monte Carlo? Why not take this week off?
Well, this is something of a home tournament, he explained. "I'm always feeling very inspired and motivated to perform my best in this tournament because I live in Monaco and I spend the majority of my time, when I'm not in tournaments, here in this club, practicing on these courts," Djokovic said.
Djokovic would have been a bit of a question mark even without the ankle, having fallen to Tommy Haas in Miami the last time he played. He's in a tough section of the draw, with Indian Wells conqueror Juan Martin del Potro leading the challengers, so Djokovic's form and fitness should be thoroughly tested by the time the week is over.
With all his variety and time spent training in Spain early in his career, Murray might be expected to flourish on the clay. But his results have lagged behind those on other surfaces, and he's hoping this is the year that starts to change.
The world No. 2 is coming off a couple of weeks training in Miami with coach Ivan Lendl, working on his movement and talking to Lendl about how to play on the surface.
And he's healthy. "I'm in better shape physically because my back's not an issue like it was last year," he said in Monte Carlo.
To try and keep it that way, Murray has given up soccer and golf -- so there'll be no challenging Nadal on the course. "I used to play a lot of football and golf but I've stopped all that now," Murray said. "I've been playing tennis a long time and you pick up things so you have to manage your body."
Federer isn't in Monte Carlo, choosing to take almost a two-month break after Indian Wells. He did make one addition to his schedule, however, announcing that he plans to play his hometown event in Basel in October.
Federer's participation in the tournament was in doubt, with the two sides having trouble agreeing on the appearance fee. After six months of talks, the tournament's reported date for Federer to make a decision arrived last week -- and he relented, saying he would not refuse to play even if there was no deal by then.
"I can play at Basel without any contracts or agreements, if I feel like it," he told Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger. "To compete on home soil is every special for me."
Federer, who has been at home in chilly Switzerland for the past few weeks, also said his back took longer to recover than he expected. But he is back training again, and set to return at the Mutua Madrid in early May.