Balls struck by the Andy Murray backhand on the Saturday preceding the US Open (above). Notice those string marks.
As you know from our page, we’ve taken Andy Murray very seriously since he hired Ivan Lendl. We weren’t in love with what we considered a bit of a backslide, pardon pun, on clay, after what we thought was a really strong showing, especially against Djokovic and Nadal at Rome and Monte Carlo in 2011. He didn’t do much to build on that this year, and we thought it a bad sign. Although, losing to ultimate warrior David Ferrer in the quarters, who has his number on clay, is not at all a bad showing when you still make the quarters. We thought Murray was going to be the first Brit to hold a trophy on clay since the 70’s on the men’s side (albeit a lesser trophy), and we still do. But obviously that didn’t happen in 2012, and it doesn’t really matter, since Murray won Olympic gold and his first major at Flushing, in dramatic 5 set fashion over nemesis Novak Djokovic. And finally, there was a couple of finals in real pressure cooker spots where you could say that Murray, Andy Murray of Great Britain, was the guy who wanted it more, who kept it together when it all could have went south. Good for him. Beating Federer at the Wimbledon Olympiad, a tired Federer or whatever, was still his biggest win up til then. Perhaps he needed that second 5 setter versus Federer to get out all the mistakes and nerves. Seemed that way. Perhaps the partisan nationalist crowd was a factor. That also seemed to be true. But Murray played the better tennis and deserved to walk out with the win. Anytime you beat Djokovic and Federer in successive matches, you deserve to hold the trophy.
At the US Open, Murray played an excellent semi-final against Berdych, in terrible conditions due to wind. Frankly, we think the wind aided Murray a great deal. Berdych was poised to dictate that match on his forehand, sans the wind. Even Murray, an excellent returner, could not have dreamed for more opportunities on second balls than the wind afforded him on Super Saturday. And Murray didn’t wow us against Marin Cilic, who was thisclose to taking the new champ out in the quarters prior to his coronation. But it takes some luck, some nerves on the part of the competition, some upsets, and it takes resolve under pressure, which Murray showed when down to Cilic, in the wind versus Berdy, and in the wind versus Djokovic in that final, and when Djokovic had stormed back from 2 sets to the bad.
Murray has the game to win majors and put it all together this summer in 2 very big spots. Is he a better player than any of the big 3? No. But he had never defeated Djokovic (0-2 prior to the Open final, both matches at Melbourne) or Federer (0-3 prior to the Olympic gold medal match) in a 5 set match prior to this summer, and now he has beaten each on their respective favorite surface. Well done indeed.
Does it mean we expect to see Murray leap frogging better players at the top of the game? No. Djokovic deserves the ranking. He went to 3 major finals, won one, and reached the Wimbledon semi. He is still top dog. Federer gets to play the rest of the season on his beloved indoor courts where the wind doesn’t affect his toss or his groundstrokes. Just recall his performance against Murray in the Wimbledon final once they covered Centre Court. We don’t see Federer losing too many matches from here on out, and he may do enough to end the year at #1. Federer certainly has the YEC in his sights yet again.
We also see Djokovic learning some really important lessons this year, as it is far different as the hunted than as the hunter. We think Djokovic became perhaps a little too impatient on all surfaces this year, a little too frustrated this year, outside of Melbourne, in spots where he was record clutch just about everywhere in 2011. While the attack mode plays best at Wimbledon, and we did like Djokovic to win there, frankly, Roger taught him a few tricks of the trade on grass, and failed let Djokovic dismantle the Federer backhand, as Federer has been an ace at stepping around the backhand in his most recent matches with Djokovic. And if Djokovic gets a windless day a few Mondays back, or if he wins that first set when up 4-2 in that breaker, he probably hoists his 2nd Open trophy. But he didn’t play well enough or get enough breaks. So what we see coming of it is that Djokovic goes into hyper work mode, as he did toward the end of 2010, when he broke through his plateau against Nadal. Djokovic is going to be the driving force in the men’s game next year. We are confident of that.
Murray and Robson (above) at Hopman Cup in Perth, 2010.
Murray is going to be a serious player at the hardcourt majors and Wimbledon for a long time to come. We thought Murray practiced very well leading up to The Open, and had the pleasure of watching him from the first row in a session against David Ferrer in which he hit the ball as hard as anyone we’ve seen hit it, leaving the string marks on the ball as pictured above. Murray has a lot of power when he hits his shots with momentum, and a lot of touch when he sheds that trademark temerity and approaches the net. Now, he uses those talents. Then there’s Murray’s bronze medal mixed doubles partner, Laura Robson, who on Sunday was nearly the first British woman to take home hardware since Virginia Wade did 30-something years ago. We remember Robson as a 13 and 14 year old prodigy on the outer courts of SW-19, thinking about the enormous pressure on her, the whole pride of Britain thing. And we didn’t see all that many gains for almost 5 years. But now, we see a kid who at 18 is on target to make the top 10 on the soon side. Robson took out Clijsters at Flushing in round 2, and we get the notion that Clijsters was also playing her emotions in that spot, her final USO match, final career match and whatnot. But nobody is rooting for Robson there so it isn’t a great spot for the kid either. Frankly, a lot about Robson reminds us of Clijsters. The backhand, for one, is a real weapon. She steps in and rips that 2-hander with control. But Robson, at 5’11, has a great serve and seems like one of the best candidates in the women’s game right now to hold her serve consistently. Then there’s that big lefty forehand that she can crush flat or corkscrew with topspin, a shot that smaller players will have a lot of trouble with when it gets up high. And Robson moves forward with ease, goes side to side and defends gracefully, and keeps her composure far beyond that of a normal 18 year old, even in tennis.
Robson has climbed some 250 spots in the last two years since she began training at the Mouratoglou academy in Paris. BTW, Mouratoglou also coaches Dimitrov, who has made decent strides since beginning that partnership, and is also a recent addition to Serena Williams coaching team, as well as being linked romantically to Lady S. Since joining forces with Williams, Serena has won Wimbledon, Olympic gold, and the US Open.
Last week, Robson had a great run in Guangzhou at a 250 level event, defeating Zheng Jie (#22), Shuai Peng (#47), and Sorana Cirstea (#30) on her way to a final berth in which she almost came from 6-3, 5-3 down to defeat then world #53, Su-Wei Hsieh. Eventually she lost to Hsieh 6-4 in the 3rd, but it was still a banner week for young Robson. Hsieh is a tricky two hander who had handled Robson in their previous meeting, 7-6, 6-4. Hsieh is a mature 26 year old, who went up to world #39 with Sunday’s win. Robson, prior to that match, talked about how hard Hsieh was to read and how difficult it is to get a rhythm playing against her.
Obviously Robson is finding a way to problem solve on the court. After the stunning upset of Clijsters at Flushing, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for her to let down in round 3 against Li Na. When she was up a set and a break on Li and then lost the break and a 2nd set breaker, no one in the house was expecting her to pull out the win. That win, sending Robson to her 1st round of 16 as a pro, was hard fought and well won, and marked her taking out two major champions in successive matches.
Robson, who started the year at 2-8 and did not get a win on the main tour until Miami at the end of March, is now 29-23, and in looking over the players above her, we see that she is poised to make a big move up the rankings this fall.
42 42 Arvidsson, Sofia 16/02/84 SWE 1355 25
43 41 Wozniak, Aleksandra 07/09/87 CAN 1350 23
44 44 Pironkova, Tsvetana 13/09/87 BUL 1325 22
45 48 Cornet, Alize 22/01/90 FRA 1325 27
46 47 Peng, Shuai 08/01/86 CHN 1315 23
47 46 Niculescu, Monica 25/09/87 ROU 1306 21
48 45 Suarez Navarro, Carla 03/09/88 ESP 1281 26
49 49 Halep, Simona 27/09/91 ROU 1225 22
50 51 Cetkovska, Petra 08/02/85 CZE 1215 20
51 50 Hradecka, Lucie 21/05/85 CZE 1199 21
52 52 Tatishvili, Anna 03/02/90 GEO 1162 30
53 43 Scheepers, Chanelle 13/03/84 RSA 1120 26
54 54 Govortsova, Olga 23/08/88 BLR 1120 26
55 55 Kuznetsova, Svetlana 27/06/85 RUS 1082 15
56 58 Jovanovski, Bojana 31/12/91 SRB 1080 29
57 74 Robson, Laura 21/01/94 GBR 1073 26
We are not impressed with anyone on that list above, except for Robson. We’d say there are some players ripe to be overtaken right up to Wozniacki at number 11, and we think Robson can leap frog a lot of these ladies with a strong end to the year. Spots 28-41 are all people Robson is going to be beating regularly, with the possible exception of Sloane Stephens, though that may be debatable. And Robson has virtually no points to defend as she moves through the remainder of the outdoor hardcourt season and then goes indoors, where she is obviously suited to the speed of play.
We were never big Murray fans and we think you know that to be the case. Still, we’ve been on Murray as a big time threat, except for at Roland Garros, since he brought Lendl aboard. Robson is a lot easier to like than Murray. No tantrums. No hype outside of the Isles. And no maddeningly passive strategies, though Murray, especially with Lendl as his coach, has better figured out when the time is to let it rip. But of all the young women we watched this summer, Robson did the most to impress. Tough break drawing Schiavone in the 1st round at Wimbledon, but we’d bet the house she’d win the rematch on grass, where she has practiced a lot, as she is already a linchpin of her nation’s Fed Cup team.
Simply put, if you are a weak minded female, or one with no weapons, then Robson will have your ranking soon enough. Between Murray and Robson, Britain is poised for their best run in tennis since the pre-modern era.