3/5/2012 9:00:00 PM
by Steve Flink
With the prestigious BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells commencing later this week and the Sony Ericsson Open to follow in Miami, the tone of the 2012 season could be set in many ways. A year ago, Novak Djokovic came out of the blocks with panache, winning the Australian Open and then recording another tournament triumph in Dubai. When Djokovic then captured both Indian Wells and Miami to sweep the springtime Masters 1000 hard court events, he signaled to the world that he was the new master of the tennis universe, and he was virtually unbeatable through the U.S. Open. The dynamic Serbian built up an almost impenetrable wall around himself at this time of the year, and he was largely untouchable through the heart and soul of 2011.
Djokovic, of course, defended his Australian Open title in January, reaffirming his status at the best tennis player on the planet. But he understandably did not successfully defend his crown in Dubai this past week, falling in the semifinals to an inspired and sublime Andy Murray in the semifinals. Djokovic surely knew that he could not open 2012 with a seven tournament, 41 match winning streak, a staggering feat he realized a year ago. Murray played one of the best matches of his career to stop Djokovic last week in Dubai, but then he bowed in the final against Roger Federer, who thus secured a second tournament title in a row. And so the stage is set for some gripping tennis in the two big hard court events ahead. Rafael Nadal will be back on the ATP World Tour for the first time since his epic final round duel with Djokovic in Melbourne. Djokovic will be eager to make amends for his latest loss with a reversal of fortunes at Indian Wells. Federer will be hoping to stretch his nine match victory streak into something more substantial.
But Murray may well be the most compelling of all the top players in the immediate weeks ahead. His victory over Djokovic was tremendously gratifying for the world No. 4, especially in light of the monumental effort he made to topple the Serbian in the penultimate round of the Australian Open. Murray lost his fourth Grand Slam tournament semifinal in a row to the same man who crushed him in the 2011 Australian Open final, falling 7-5 in the fifth set this time around in Melbourne. But his performance in ousting Djokovic at Dubai was magnificent. The Serbian searched in vain for a way to break down Murray’s game, but simply could not succeed. Murray was in the zone, and even Djokovic at his very best would have been hard pressed to beat the British No. 1.
The two sterling hard court rivals were locked at 2-2 in the opening set, but then Murray collected no fewer than seven games in a row. The entire match turned in Murray’s direction in the sixth game of the first set. Djokovic had served two straight aces for 30-0, but he lost the next four points in a row. Murray moved to 4-2 when Djokovic went for a trademark forehand winner down the line, but uncharacteristically drove the ball wildly over the baseline. Murray recouped from 15-40 in the following game to hold for 5-2, then broke a befuddled Djokovic at 15 to seal the set.
Djokovic has made a habit across the last year out of building early leads, capturing opening sets, and methodically carving out triumphs from there. But his discomfort was apparent as Murray outdueled him so impressively from the baseline on this occasion. It was almost bizarre to see Djokovic pressing, to watch him flail at some shots recklessly, to witness Murray picking him apart unrelentingly. Murray’s forehand—often his problem side over the years—was unerring and strong. His two-hander had more sting than Djokovic’s. Backhand to backhand, Murray was the better man. Forehand to forehand, Murray was more solid. And Murray out-served Djokovic by a wide margin.
When Djokovic attempted to accelerate the pace and take command of the rallies, Murray defended brilliantly. Murray surged to 3-0 in the second set, sweeping 12 of 16 points in the process. He advanced to 5-2, and then served for the match at 5-3. That was his only moment of indecision, and it could have cost him the match. Murray—who had not yet lost his serve—double faulted into a 0-30 hole, made a rare forehand unforced mistake to trail 15-40, and was broken at 15 as a jubilant Djokovic advertised his exhilaration. Djokovic made it back to 5-5, but Murray remained composed and undeterred. He made good on four of five first serves, releasing three service winners and an ace to move ahead 6-5, and then broke Djokovic at 15, taking eight of the last ten points to secure a thoroughly deserved 6-2, 7-5 win over the world No. 1. Murray put 71% of his first serves in, lost his serve only once, and won 34 of 40 first serve points (85%) against the game’s finest returner. Although Murray won only 4 of 16 second serve points for a dismal 25%, it hardly mattered. He was so flawless from the back of the court, so resourceful tactically, and so unstoppable on his first delivery that Djokovic could not make an impression.
Murray had scored a technical knockout win over Djokovic last summer in Cincinnati, but that was when the Serbian had an ailing shoulder and did not complete the match. It was, therefore, a tainted victory, and did nothing to lift Murray’s morale. This one in Dubai was very different. He outplayed his adversary across the board for two sets, and he spoke after the match about the boost of confidence the win would give him. But then he came out the next day to face Federer, and Murray was not the same player. Granted, it was windy when he took on the Swiss, and it was not the easiest task to deal with the former world champion only a day after upending the current world No. 1. The fact remains that Murray’s performance was lackluster and he did not conduct himself as if he was appearing in an important final. He was largely listless, his game was only sporadically on, and he did not compete with much vitality.
Did he have a letdown after his uplifting triumph over Djokovic? Clearly, he did. But Murray can’t afford to let that happen very often if he wants to realize his goal of taking a major title this season. Imagine that he is at Wimbledon, and Murray happens to stop Djokovic again in the penultimate round. Will he get away with a less than stellar effort against Rafael Nadal or Federer in the final? Not a chance. To be sure, Murray was going to have considerable difficulty replicating the dazzling form he exhibited against Djokovic at Dubai in the next day’s clash with Federer, but he owed it to himself to find a way to compete at a higher level with a title on the line against an accomplished man who stands just above him at No. 3 in the world. Murray was beaten 7-5, 6-4 in his 15th career showdown with Federer, a series that the British player still leads 8-7.
The conditions made it an arduous assignment for both Federer and Murray as they took each other on for the title, but Federer handled the wind with a lot more acumen than his opponent. Murray made a discouraging amount of unprovoked mistakes off the ground, particularly off his normally trustworthy backhand side. He did not serve well, finishing at 48% in the first serve category. He also let Federer get away with connecting on only 50% of his first serves. Despite all of those opportunities to exploit his terrific return against the Federer second delivery, Murray only broke the 30-year-old once in the match. Federer played some excellent tennis when it counted, and was far superior to Murray at the end of both the first and second sets. Federer outsmarted Murray and played the match much more on his terms. He earned the victory fair and square, and his quiet intensity, zest and drive were decidedly more apparent than Murray’s.
Perhaps the pivotal moment of the match was when Federer served at 2-3, 15-40 in the opening set. A break for Murray would have given him a nice cushion, and might well have carried him through the set. At both 15-40 and 30-40, Federer missed his first serve, but Murray wasted those crucial openings. He missed a routine two-hander long on the first break point, and netted a running forehand that he should have made on the second. Federer stymied Murray from deuce with a service winner to the backhand and then held on for 3-3 when he implemented a masterful drop shot that drew Murray forward, allowing the Swiss to deposit a backhand volley winner down the line into an open court.
At 5-5, Murray wandered into a mess that was essentially of his own making. He double faulted and then made a careless backhand unforced error to trail 0-30. Federer slightly miss-hit a short sliced backhand return that provoked a mistake from Murray to make it 0-40. Murray rallied to deuce before Federer chip-charged off the backhand down the middle to coax a backhand passing shot error from Murray, who then saved a fourth break point when Federer was guilty of a forehand unforced error down the line. At break point for the fifth time, Federer would not buckle. He drew Murray in with another short backhand chip return, then stepped up the pace of his backhand passing shot to rush Murray into a backhand volley error. Federer had the critical break for 6-5, and then held at 15 for the set after opening that game with an ace.
Federer opened up a 3-1 lead in the second set as Murray missed four of five first serves in the third game. But Murray battled back to garner three games in a row, breaking Federer in the sixth game as the Swiss lost his serve for the only time in the entire tournament. Despite a double fault at 3-3, 30-30, Murray escaped from break point down, buoyed by a pair of errant forehands from Federer. Murray closed that game out with an ace to take a 4-3 lead, but his progress was swiftly halted. Federer held at 15 for 4-4, then broke at 15 in the ninth game. Federer played an excellent return game, but Murray contributed significantly to his own demise with a bad miss on a backhand volley and then a netted backhand unforced error down the line at break point down.
Serving for the match, Federer went to 40-30 and his first match point, but a deep backhand down the line into the wind from Murray caused the Swiss to miss a running forehand long. Federer was imperturbable. He released a barrage of crosscourt forehands, and eventually ran around his backhand for an inside-out forehand winner. On his second match point, Federer used the wind one last time to his distinct advantage. Murray’s return hung slightly in the wind, and the Swiss stepped in majestically to drive an inside-out forehand for another outright winner. Federer prevailed 7-5, 6-4 for his first title outdoors since the beginning of 2011 in Doha. Not only did he secure a fifth singles title in Dubai, but he also improved his outlook considerably as he heads into the bigger hard court events in California and Florida. In 2006, Federer won Indian Wells for the third year in a row and defended his crown in Miami, but over the last five years he has fared badly in those two highly valued tournaments. He did not return to the final of either event in that 2007-2011 span, which is surprising considering his hard court prowess.
Federer was given a sterner test in Dubai than I expected from Juan Martin Del Potro in the semifinals, winning that encounter 7-6 (5), 7-6 (6). Neither player broke serve in this high quality match. Del Potro was strikingly potent and commanding as he completed a rigorous three week stretch. He had lost to Federer in the final of Rotterdam two weeks earlier before taking the title in Marseilles. In Dubai, the surging Del Potro knocked out Jo-Wilfried Tsonga for the second week in a row, but sounded pessimistic as he approached his meeting with Federer. Federer had, after all, cut down the towering Argentine three times without losing a set starting in Cincinnati last summer. Not once in that span did Del Potro look even remotely like the daunting fellow who had overpowered Federer in the 2009 U.S. Open final and again at the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London later that year.
But he was terrific against the Swiss stylist in Dubai. He imposed himself much more, tested Federer comprehensively off both wings, exploded more freely off his forehand side, and forced Federer to play much more defense than the Swiss would have liked. Moreover, Del Potro served probably better than he ever has against Federer, and the weight and accuracy of his first delivery coupled with the heaviness and depth of his kicking second serve were admirable. Federer served even better than his Argentine opponent, and did not even face a break point in the match. En route to a first set tie-break, Federer lost a mere five points in six service games. Del Potro conceded only five points in his first five service games, but then obstinately saved two set points in a four deuce game before holding on for 6-6.
In that opening set tie-break, Federer opened with an ace for 1-0 and charged to 6-2. Del Potro saved three more set points to close the gap to 6-5, but Federer came through in the clutch on the twelfth point, sending his first serve out wide to the Del Potro backhand to set up a forehand swing volley winner to rule in that sequence, 7-5. Federer had the set in hand. At 1-1 in the second set, Del Potro somehow held on from 0-40 with a string of five consecutive first serves. At 2-2, he saved another break point. On they went to another tie-break, and Del Potro seemed certain to prevail when he moved to 5-0.
Federer took his two service points to make it 5-2, but Del Potro served at 6-2, and stood quadruple set point. A forehand unforced error cost him that point and Federer swiftly took both of his service points. Del Potro served again at 6-5, only to net an inside-out forehand. At 6-6, in an absorbing 29 stroke exchange, Federer defended ably and Del Potro netted a backhand down the line. Surely perplexed by his lost opportunities, Del Potro drove another two-hander long. Federer had swept six points in a row, saving four set points to avoid a third set.
And so, on we go to Indian Wells, wondering if Federer can remain ascendant, curious to find out if Nadal can win the tournament for the third time after a long absence from competition, anxious to find out if Djokovic will cast aside his Dubai disappointment and strike back boldly to retain his Indian Wells crown. But perhaps the chief curiosity will surround Andy Murray. These next 12 to 18 months will be a pivotal phase in Murray’s career, a time when he must demonstrate the willingness to play every big match with deep resolve, a stretch when he needs to take his game and his talent to a newfound level of reliability every time he steps on court. In Dubai, he was unstoppable against Djokovic, performing like a man who knows he belongs among the elite. Against Federer, he was unexceptional, a player out of sorts, a competitor who did not do himself justice. At Indian Wells and beyond, it will be incumbent upon Andy Murray to keep rising to every challenge, to suffer no letdowns, to keep winning at any cost.