Current back to back Rogers Cup champion and pride of Britain, Andy Murray (above).
Last weekend, amid a semi-raucous bachelor party, your loyal scribe still made time for some definite appointment television: Saturday evening from Toronto, it was the 15th career meeting between the legend and the lame–Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, and then Sunday at 3 PM, after Roger had taken care of his business from the night before, it was the Australian Open rematch from this year, in a best of 3 set format live from Toronto between Roger Federer and Andy Murray.
That major final–and that major in its entirety for that matter–was the last time we saw Federer move with the surgical precision of a highly artistic grim reaper, completely dusting Nikolay Davydenko in a quarter-final matchup in which Federer won an incredible 14 straight games, after dropping the first set, a winning run that stretched on into a 2nd hour.
Roger then held a clinic in the semi-finals, abusing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in straight sets, and going deep into the bag of tricks while doing so, pulling out the lob volley and the drop shot serve return, on his way to a date in the finals with Andy Murray and an inevitable 16th major championship and 4th Australian title, jumping on Murray early in a 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (11) straight set whipping that left Murray in tears. You remember Murray’s classic loser’s speech (below) in which he declared that he “can cry like Roger, I just can’t play like him.”
Murray, who we are intensely critical of here in this space (we don’t like players who wait around for errors; we like players who take the initiative), suffered a heart breaking 4 set loss with the weight of the British Isles on his shoulders in the semi-finals of Wimbledon 09 to American Andy Roddick, then made a big deal of telling the world that there was too much pressure on him at Wimbledon, and that he’d train harder than ever for the major where he felt he had the best chance, the quick hardcourts of Flushing. Several weeks of interviews and ESPN commercials later that showed Andy Murray doing situps with a medicine ball and training in the hot Miami sun–and talking about how great he is–and then Murray posts a big win over arch rival Juan Martin Del Potro in Montreal, and the next thing you know, this kid is telling the cameras of his personal rankings computations and how if he wins Cincinnati and The Open, he takes over the top ranking on the computer.
Federer, panned for dropping so many best of 3 set matches to Murray in his career (2-6 vs. Murray until then with all the losses coming in best of 3’s), must have been watching ESPN with a healthy distaste for the British media darling. He jumped on Murray in the finals at Cincy, took the 1st set off the kid in 17 minutes which left him reeling, on his way to a 6-2, 7-6 (8) victory that assured Federer of the top spot for months to come. Murray then came out in the round of 16 at The Open, took a big serving, ball crushing opponent like Marin Cilic lightly, and the big man dusted Murray 7-5, 6-2, 6-2, ending Murray’s 2009 quest for a major title, and rendering his year a grave disappointment, despite his 6 titles during the calendar year that led all players on the tour.
Murray had regressed, had struck out at his self proclaimed best major, and had let down his major hungry nation and fanbase. For a good player who had become a big endorsement machine, and who had a lot of considerable, albeit, lesser hardware in his trophy case, Murray got smoked in the 3 spots where he was racked with the most pressure and expectations: Wimbledon, the home major, Cincinnati, the first step in his plan to steal the # 1 ranking, and the US Open, the major that Murray basically announced would have his name on the trophy. And to add insult to injury, one time prospective coach and current Roddick coach, Larry Stefanki, ripped Murray after Wimbledon for his gutless, passive style. Recall that Murray had once had his camp ask Stefanki if he’d coach Murray, and Stefanki replied by telling Murray’s people to have the kid call him. Murray never called, and Stefanki perceived the non call as diva like behavior from the kid. Stefanki ended up coaching Chilean one handed star, Fernando Gonzalez, who despite not having english mastered, did call Stefanki personally, before eventually winding up in Roddick’s box.
Sunday’s showdown between Federer and Murray marked their first meeting since Oz, featured Federer on a court more favorable to his game (43 out of 62 of Roger’s titles have come on hards) despite it suiting Murray well too, saw Federer in pursuit of his first title since Australia, and Murray in pursuit of his first title of the year of any sort, and featured Federer as the all time leader in career masters series match wins–a lot of buzz for a Masters Series final.
The matchup meant that Roger had put in his best week of tennis since Australia, not coincidentally in his first week on tour with new coach Paul Annacone, with gutsy 3 set wins over rising nemesis Tomas Berdych and rival Novak Djokovic, whom Federer blitzed 6-1 in the first set, but who looked a lot more stout an hour later when he seemed to be cracking backhand winners at will, and serving well. From mid second set when Djokovic won back a break until the middle of the 3rd set, Djokovic played the more solid tennis, made fewer errors, and seemed to punish every short ball Federer gave him a look at. And I said to my buddy, “Fed’s done.”
Not so fast. It only took a few shaky serves from the Djoker for Roger to get way out in front in the 3rd game of the 3rd set, and a tired looking Roger seemed to transport himself back to Federer circa 2006, dialing up the trademark run around forehand at will until Federer had set up a Sunday date with Murray. I went out that night aglow, I admit, with thoughts of Roger Federer returning to dominance on hardcourts against Murray the next day, in Cincy like fashion. Yes, Roger would return to tournament winning tennis by taking his 3rd Rogers Cup, with new coach–the perfect attacking style coach for Federer, former Sampras’ coach Paul Annacone, sitting bemused in the box next to Mirka.
A thousand words plus and we are barely to the actual match. Enjoy these volumes if you are one to, because you probably won’t see another write-up of the sort on tennis for some time out of me, with many vacations coming up and a few weekend weddings on the slate.
Then the match started. I told my boy that I expected–no, I knew that Roger would win, that Roger probably already had the kid psyched out, and I expected to see the Cincy 09 final repeated. Roger would jump all over Murray early, the way he did in 08 at the Open and in 2010 in Australia, and of course, last year in Ohio. The way he jumped on Djokovic the night before, who, by the way, had a very notable supporter in the stands–world # 1 Rafael Nadal, who came out to watch Fed/Djoker XV in a pink Polo shirt a few hours after Murray straighted him. Perhaps Fed/Djoker really piqued the Spaniard’s interest, perhaps Nadal was being a good teammate to Djokovic, who was his doubles partner that week. At any rate, I thought it was a very classy move on Nadal’s part to take in the match as a spectator, especially after suffering a tough loss a few hours prior.
My big Federer hypothesis held up for all of 1 point on Sunday. Federer, with serve, stepped up and passed Murray to take the first point. But on the 30-15 point, in a long baseline rally, Murray kicked the ball up high to Federer’s backhand–the Rafa play–and forced the error. Fed played tight on the next two points, and Murray seemed to play way more aggressively than normal, perhaps with Larry Stefanki’s harsh sentiments echoing in his ears, or perhaps as a result of the watchful eye of Judy Murray, the mother and sometimes coach of Andy Murray, who we assume had her duties expanded when Murray fired coach Miles Maclagan.
A look to the player’s box revealed that Annacone was not present coaching Federer for the Murray match, an ominous sign for Federer. But Annacone was prevented from being in the box by a conflict of interest, as his responsibilities to the British LTA have not yet been totally severed, so the man on the scene who knew best about Murray’s game, having coached him for 2 years in Davis Cup, could not actually be on the scene.
Murray jumped out to a 3-love edge, breaking Federer again in Roger’s next service game, and Brad Gilbert pointed out that Roger was tight, and worn out from two hard fought 3 set night matches in a row. Federer broke back to reclaim 1 of the breaks to get to 3-1, and then capitalized as Murray served for the set at 5-4, and threw in a shaky game, as Murray has always been notoriously bad at closing out sets on serve. Federer got to 5-5, and very importantly, began to flash the footwork, hitting his first backhand winner on a lightning strike of a pass in the crucial 5-4 break back game. I felt like Roger was getting it together, but then Federer comes out loose in the 5-5 game on his serve, but down break point Roger smashed a high backhand volley winner, and then he comes in for a touch volley to go up the ad, before wasting a few first serves, then going down another break point on a classic rally point, and then giving up the break before Murray quickly served out the set.
It was a bleak set for Roger, who only came up with 4 winners, total. When Roger loses the first set to a guy like Murray, who you know is going to fight hard for every point, the doubt begins to creep in about Roger’s ability to take two difficult sets after dropping a hard one. So it was. Murray won an early break to go up 3-1, and then the rains came. Roger would get it back to 5-5 after a rain delay, but ended up dropping the match to Murray, who took his first title of the year, a few weeks after losing in exciting fashion to American Sam Querrey at the Farmers Classic, where Murray was a late entrant wildcard, the top seed and a prohibitive favorite.
Sunday, despite my good feelings coming into the match, was a bleak day for Roger in an otherwise good week. Murray proved to be the better conditioned player, and the better mover on hardcourts right now, and in watching the match, I marveled at how he hadn’t won a title this year, despite his no guts style. Though I am no Murray fan and never will be, I find myself empathizing with his plight–the awkward kid with the domineering mom who cried like a baby in Melbourne at the trophy presentation. The kid who takes out Nadal for Roger, and who just wants to play video games sometimes, who has the weight of a nation’s major tennis hopes squarely on his shoulders.
What about his mom? Good tennis fans would know that many of the players who Murray came up with do not like his mom, and notably, US Open Champion Juan Martin Del Potro has had heated arguments with both Murray and his mother, on court and in the locker room, stemming from Murray’s mom’s propensity to cheer too loudly during matches.
As for Roger, I’m going to stick with a my time honored philosophy of not getting too crazy about results in the Masters Series. As gratifying a win as Federer’s was for me last year in Cincy, it would have been much better had he lost in Cincinnati and won The Open. Was his footwork good enough to beat Murray on a fast hardcourt on Sunday? No. But let’s give Paul Annacone a chance–it’s only been a week. Federer has some work to do yet to prepare for The Open, and hopefully he has enough time to get his feet right going into Flushing, where Federer can pull off an amazing double should he win. Winning The Open would give Roger a record 6 Wimbledon and 6 US Open titles.
Though it could be disconcerting when a lumberer like Querrey can beat Murray, and a re-invented Mardy Fish can beat Murray (Fish just eliminated Murray from Cincinnati, 6-7 (7), 6-1, 7-6 (5)), and Roger doesn’t. And it will be, if Federer isn’t more ready for Murray should they meet in Flushing. Still, something tells me Roger will be okay when he gets his body on the major schedule, and has a day, sometimes two, between matches (except for the semi-finals and finals, which are played on the final Saturday and Sunday consecutively, unlike any other major, and making the US Open even tougher for most to win.)