By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - When Andy Murray walks into Wimbledon on Monday to begin what he hopes will be the successful defense of his title he may be feeling a little lighter than usual at this time of year.
Ever since assuming the role of Britain's flag bearer at the All England Club from perennial semi-finalist Tim Henman, Murray has shouldered the huge weight of expectation heaped on him by a nation desperate to celebrate a men's singles champion.
He finally delivered last year, beating Novak Djokovic on an unforgettable sunny afternoon on Centre Court, at a stroke wiping away decades of mediocrity and hurt that followed Fred Perry's 1936 title run in south west London.
Things have not gone exactly to plan in the intervening 12 months, however, with injuries, poor form and changes to his coaching personnel raising serious questions about his ability to match last year's heroics.
Djokovic, without a grand slam title since the Australian Open in 2013, will be leading the cast of players hoping to take advantage of any Murray weakness, while world No.1 Rafa Nadal has a point to prove after two successive Wimbledon shockers.
Then there is Swiss maestro Roger Federer who despite being the wrong side of 30, shows no sign of giving up on an 18th grand slam title, especially at a place he has turned into his own back garden down the years.
A gathering band of young guns could also prove troublesome but, according to former champion John McEnroe, at least the pressure on Murray will not be as suffocating as usual.
"The fact that he's done it takes a lot of pressure off him. That should be understood," the American, who will be offering his pearls of wisdom to ESPN viewers, said in a conference call ahead of the championships.
"He did something that took 76 or 78 years to do so there's definitely less pressure.
"Having said that, any time you taste what it feels like to win it once, you obviously want to win it again. So there's an element of pressure you put on yourself for starters."
Murray's preparation this year is in marked contrast to 2013 when he missed the French Open with a back injury but arrived at Wimbledon firing on all cylinders after several weeks of grasscourt practice and a title run at Queen's.
Since triumphing at Wimbledon, however, Murray has not won a title and there are question marks over his game.
Back surgery after last year's U.S. Open sidelined Murray until January and while he has shown flashes of the form that earned him the 2012 U.S. Open and last year's Wimbledon, his results have been inconsistent.
Murray split with coach Ivan Lendl in March and this month made the decision to hire Frenchwoman Amelia Mauresmo.
Their collaboration began somewhat disappointingly as Murray surrendered his Queen's Club title by losing to Czech veteran Radek Stepanek - a third round defeat that ended a 19-match winning streak on grass dating back to the 2012 Olympics.
Former Wimbledon champion Mauresmo, who hated the scrutiny she experienced at the French Open, will find her every facial expression captured by the camera lenses as she attempts to help guide Murray through a draw loaded with pitfalls.
At least, he will not have to worry about playing either Djokovic, Nadal or seven-times champion Federer until the semi-finals having been bumped up in the seedings to three despite a world ranking of five.
Djokovic, the champion in 2011, tops the seedings with twice former champion Nadal demoted to two after failing to survive past the second round for the last two years.
Nadal beat Djokovic to win a ninth French Open title this month but after an embarrassing defeat by German maverick Dustin Brown at the Halle warm-up event there are doubts over the Spaniard's grasscourt prospects.
He is also still suffering some pain in his back, although that was not evident at Roland Garros.
"I felt it in Paris in the first rounds, but things got much better after the third round," Nadal, who squeezed in a short break in his native Mallorca before arriving in London, said.
"The serve is the shot that is mostly affected by it, because I am not able to put all the power from my back."
McEnroe thinks Djokovic is the favorite and regards Federer as an "outside pick" although he believes the Swiss master may struggle to add another grand slam to his collection.
"Roger is obviously amazing," he said. "I still think he's going to make a run in the majors. I didn't think he could go all the way and win one. He just had another set of twins, for God's sake. Maybe it won't be that easy."
Of the other contenders for Murray's crown, Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka is long overdue a run at Wimbledon having only won one match in his last four visits.
While the Swiss struggles to master grasscourts, Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov is beginning to look like the real deal on all surfaces and after winning the Queen's Club title is being tipped as the man most likely to challenge the big four.
"He hasn't exactly knocked them dead in the majors," McEnroe said of the 23-year-old former junior Wimbledon champion.
"He's got a lot to prove. He and (Canadian Milos) Raonic are the two guys that I have seen who have done the most recently to make this breakthrough."
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar)