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Steve Flink: Murray's gold medal triumph will be transformational

8/6/2012 1:00:00 PM

Precisely four weeks after Andy Murray was upended in the Wimbledon final by the redoubtable Roger Federer, he stepped back on the same renowned Centre Court to confront the Swiss Maestro again in the final of the Olympic Games. Hours before the Murray-Federer gold medal duel, it was raining on the grounds of the All England Club. The roof was closed, reminding many observers of how unstoppable Federer looked as he took the last two sets indoors in that championship match at the world’s premier tennis tournament, perhaps raising the morale of the world No. 1, who has not lost indoors since the autumn of 2010, when he squandered five match points in the semifinals at Paris against Gael Monfils.

But the rain ceased. The eagerly anticipated encounter took place outdoors. The sun emerged. And out came a highly charged Murray to collect the most substantial prize of his career with a first rate display, blending defense with considerable aggression, serving purposefully, returning as well as he ever has against his popular adversary. Murray took apart Federer with ruthless efficiency and strategic acumen, covering the court with supreme alacrity, measuring his shots impeccably, sweeping to victory unhesitatingly. The British No. 1 thoroughly deserved the 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 win that came his way. He never lost his serve, broke Federer five times across the three sets, saved all nine break points against him, and handled the occasion commendably.

The way Murray was playing, he was almost certainly going to take the gold medal under any circumstances. Even a fresh Federer would have been hard pressed to halt a Murray who was in the right frame of mind and near his zenith all through the event. But the view here is that Federer was almost totally spent after laboring for four hours and 26 minutes in a semifinal sparkler against Juan Martin Del Potro. Federer held back the Argentine 3-6, 7-6 (5), 19-17 in the showcase match of the 2012 Olympics, but he had only one day off to recover from that debilitating adventure. In essence, Federer and Del Potro endured a five set match incorrectly labeled as a three set skirmish. There was almost no way Federer was going to have a reasonable chance to win a best of five set final coming off such an exhausting struggle in the penultimate round.

The way I look at it, it is ludicrous that three of the four Grand Slam events—all but the U.S. Open— and the Olympics, Fed Cup and Davis Cup all insist on playing the final set out, rather than having it settled in a tie-break the way it is done in every other set of a match. My problem with this misguided policy is that it is pragmatic rather than principled. If the powers that be felt that they wanted to stick with tradition and play every set out, that would at least be consistent. But eliminating the tie-break only in the final set is a fundamental contradiction. Why change the rules and overtax the players?

The answer is clear. None of these events could take the tie-break out of the equation altogether because that would be impractical; too many matches would be on court for much longer hours, and that would play havoc with the schedule. Television would not tolerate it. But by playing the final set out—particularly on a fast surface like grass—the victims are those players who happen to become involved in marathons. Jo Wilfried Tsonga defeated Milos Raonic 6-3, 3-6, 25-23 in the second round and he knew he was compromised by the length of that battle. Although he managed to beat Feliciano Lopez in his next match, he bowed out in straight sets against Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. Tsonga might well have lost to Djokovic even if he had not been forced to compete for so long against Raonic, but he was a victim of a rule that makes very little sense.

For Federer, there may be one more remote chance to garner a singles gold medal, at the 2016 Games. But he deserved a fairer set of circumstances heading into his final round collision with Murray. So did anyone in his shoes. Many of us have long lamented the injustice of the U.S. Open schedule, with the two winning men’s semifinalists returning the following day to play for the title. That often lowers the standard of play and raises the eyebrows of tennis fans who believe that the players must be given a day off in advance of a major final. But I also believe the fans would largely prefer to witness a final set tie-break at these big events, rather than waiting for so long for the outcomes to be determined. When John Isner famously took his eleven hour, five minute, three day extravaganza over Nicolas Mahut at the 2010 Wimbledon in the first round, that was an extreme case of ruining a player’s chances to move on after such a physical ordeal.

But these 19-17 and 25-23 final sets are no bargain either. The view here is simple: play the tie-break in each and every set, with no exceptions, no matter what the surface or location. It has been around for over four decades, it is the standard currency of competition, it adds suspense and exhilaration for the fans, and it is a fair way to end a set. There is no need to fix a scoring system that plainly isn’t broke.

Be that at it may, Federer knew full well that he could not afford to let Murray bolt out in front. The only hope for the Swiss was to start this Olympic final in style, to give himself a shot of adrenaline by establishing an early lead, winning the first set, and quieting down the British crowd by making Murray fret. Conversely, Murray was well aware that he could benefit immensely from an auspicious start. To be sure, he had won the opening set of the Wimbledon final against Federer before bowing in four sets, but this time the upside would be of higher value for Murray.

The British competitor was in immediate trouble. At 15-30 in the first game of the match, Federer teased him with his trademark short backhand chipped return, forcing Murray to come forward. Murray netted his backhand approach. It was double break point for Federer, but he could not exploit his opening. Federer netted a backhand down the line passing shot. Murray then followed with a penetrating backhand down the line, forcing the Swiss into a running forehand down the line mistake. At deuce, Federer chip-charged behind his backhand return, but Murray passed him cleanly off his two-hander. A service winner to the backhand enabled Murray to hold on for 1-0. He had put only three of eight first serves in play, but his ground game bailed him out.

Federer answered with a love hold of his own, serving an ace, a service winner, and connecting with a forehand inside-out winner on his way to 1-1. But after Murray held easily at 15 for 2-1, Federer began to struggle on his own delivery. He was break point down in the fourth game, but an ace wide in the Ad Court took the Swiss out of danger, and he held on for 2-2. Murray was still having problems with his first serve rhythm. He missed five of six first serves in the fifth game, but still held for 3-2 at 30.

Serving in the sixth game, Federer fought ferociously to hold. That game featured four deuces. Federer had three game points. But Murray got the crucial break for 4-2 when he unloaded freely on a flat crosscourt backhand, provoking a netted backhand from Federer. The Swiss looked to retaliate in the seventh game, pushing Murray to deuce. But Murray concluded that game with a pair of aces, down the T in the deuce court and out wide in the Ad court. Now Federer was serving to stay in the set. He found the mark with five out of six first serves, but Murray was returning superbly. At 30-30, Murray made a terrific flat backhand return off a first serve, moved in behind it, and provoked Federer into a slice backhand error. Serving at 30-40, Federer approached behind a forehand swing volley, but did not strike it well. Murray easily passed him down the line off the backhand. Set to Murray, 6-2.

Murray was determined to maintain his momentum. He held at 15 for 1-0 in the second set, then broke Federer at love as the Swiss missed three out of four first serves. Federer opened that second game abysmally, coming in behind his serve down the T but bungling an overhead into the net from close range. Federer then miss-hit a topspin backhand long for 0-30. Murray’s forehand bounded off the net cord and landed for a fortunate winner to make it 0-40, and his forehand passing shot clipped the net cord and stayed in to put Murray up 2-0. But it was the next game that proved to be the most pivotal of the match. There were seven deuces. Federer had six break points.

And yet, Murray kept his composure and found a way safely out of that critical game. On one of those break points, he made a spectacular reflex backhand volley winner; on another, he caught Federer off guard with a body serve to the backhand. Murray held on for 3-0 when a beleaguered Federer was guilty of a backhand unforced error. Federer moved to 40-15 in the fourth game, but Murray was unrelenting on his returns and narrow in his focus. He eventually broke for 4-0 when Federer went for a big second serve. His gamble backfired into a double fault. Murray rolled on to 5-0, winning his ninth consecutive game in the process.

Two games later, Murray held for the set, saving another break point with a crackling inside-in forehand drawing an error from a Federer who was clearly half a step slower than usual. Murray had the set, 6-1. Yet Federer started the third by holding at love, releasing two aces in that game. They went to 2-2, and that was when Murray made his move. With Federer serving at 15-40, Murray unleashed another sizzling flat backhand crosscourt, taking too much time away from Federer, who sliced a backhand meekly into the net. Murray was rolling now. He served a third consecutive love game to reach 4-2, and had Federer down 15-40 in the seventh game.

Federer connected with an inside-out forehand winner for 30-40, and then Murray pressed, making a surprising backhand unforced error. Federer realized he was on the edge of defeat, and acted accordingly. He threw in a surprise serve-and-volley, making a sparkling forehand half volley winner. He then played a terrific point to hold on for 3-4, drawing a passing shot error from Murray. Murray served another love game to reach 5-3, but Federer answered by sending out two aces in a row down the T to hold at love himself.

Now it was time for Murray to serve for the match in the tenth game of the third set. He moved ahead 15-0, but Federer ran around his backhand and hit an excellent forehand inside-in return that Murray could not handle. He had missed shat shot repeatedly over the course of the match, but, with his back to the wall, Federer finally made that play work. Yet Murray refused to buckle. A service winner down the T took him to 30-15. An ace wide in the Ad Court brought the British player to 40-15. And then he closed out the confrontation on his terms with another ace down the T in the Deuce Court. Murray had served out the match with a flourish. In raising his career record to 9-8 over the Swiss, he had given a nearly immaculate performance, while Federer—three days shy of his 31st birthday— played an essentially indifferent match.

The statistics do not lie in this case. Federer made 31 unforced errors, while Murray had only 17. Murray won 80% of his first serve points, with Federer taking only 65% of his first serve points. The disparity in their second serve points won was even larger. Federer won only 37% of his second serve points while Murray backed up his second delivery so well that he won 63% of those points. Murray converted 5 of 10 break points while Federer went 0 for 9. Murray had 27 winners, three more than Federer. Finally, while Murray approached the net selectively (winning 9 of 12 points), Federer attacked more frequently but for little gain, winning 18 of 33 points (55%).

Beyond the numbers, Murray was simply the much better man off the ground. Backhand to backhand, he mastered Federer; forehand to forehand, he more than held his own. In the Wimbledon final, Federer’s backhand was almost invulnerable and Murray overplayed it, but in this match he broke down that side systematically. Meanwhile, Federer was able to pin Murray far behind the baseline at Wimbledon and provoke errors off of the British player’s forehand, but Murray did not allow that to happen this time because his forehand was more penetrating and his ball control was decidedly better.

The match of the Olympic tournament was, of course, Federer-Del Potro. This was their sixth meeting of 2012, and Federer had not lost to his towering rival in that stretch. But the Argentine had squandered two sets to love lead in their most recent showdown at the French Open. Del Potro came out of the gates forcefully this time around. Del Potro broke Federer for a 5-3 first set lead, then held at love with a commanding display of power off the ground and on serve. Federer, meanwhile, had not found his range. The Argentine looked entirely capable of recording a straight set victory.

Del Potro erased couple of break points against him in the second game of the second set, serving big to the Federer backhand in the Ad Court, a pattern he would replicate for the rest of the match. The Argentine held on for 1-1. With Federer serving at 2-2, Del Potro had a break point but Federer aced his way out of that dangerous moment. Serving at 2-3, Del Potro faced break point again, but saved it with a big serve setting up a forehand winner. When Federer served at 4-4 in that second set, Del Potro had a break point, with a possible opportunity to serve for the match. But the Swiss wiped it away briskly with a precise serve down the T opening an avenue for a forehand winner.

On they went to a tie-break. Federer charged to a 4-1 lead in that sequence, but Del Potro rallied to 4-4 when the Swiss punched a forehand volley apprehensively over the baseline. Del Potro thus stood three points away from a straight set win. But Federer quickly took the next point. Serving at 4-5, Del Potro made one of his few backhand unprovoked mistakes. Federer took the tie-break 7-5 with an ace out wide in the Ad Court.

The third set was stupendous in many ways. Federer served at 0-1, 15-40. He was down double break point. The Swiss approached behind a topspin backhand crosscourt, and the Argentine’s down the line passing shot was narrowly wide. Federer produced an inside-out forehand winner to make it deuce, and soon held on. At 3-3, Federer garnered a break point, but Del Potro threaded the needle with a forehand down the line winner behind the Swiss. He held on for 4-4. In the ninth game, Del Potro was down break point again, but he came forward to put away an overhead emphatically. Del Potro moved to 5-4. He closed out that game with an ace for 5-4.

Federer was serving to stay in the match in the tenth game. He held at love, and did the same thing at 5-6. He would serve to keep himself in the match a total of twelve times in that stirring final set, standing tall in each of those games. But Del Potro was nearly as impressive with his steadfastness in the trenches. At 9-9 in that final set, Del Potro served two double faults, and miss-hit a forehand badly off a clever sliced backhand from Federer. That gave Federer the break, and the chance to serve for the match. But he was serving into a considerable wind. Despite putting three out of four first serve in play, Federer was broken at love as the Argentine used the wind at his back to drive the ball potently. Del Potro held at 15 to regain the lead at 11-10, but Federer’s poise under pressure was extraordinary. He held at love for 11-11 with a backhand drop shot winner.

At 11-12, however, Federer was down 0-30. He aced Del Potro wide to the forehand in the deuce court, released a service winner down the T, and followed with two more unstoppable first serves. Three times in that game, Federer was two points away from defeat, but his magnificent serving carried him out of a precarious corner back to 12-12. At 14-14, it was Del Potro who was in jeopardy. He was down 0-40, but swept five points in a row with overwhelming power and no small dose of courage. Now Federer served at 14-15, and three more times he stood two points away from a bruising loss. At 30-30, he aced Del Potro down the T; at deuce, he swung his slice serve wide to elicit an errant return; and on the next deuce, Federer released a service winner down the T. He held on gamely for 15-15.

At 17-17, having been broken only once in 28 previous service games over the course of the match, Del Potro could not hold on to his delivery. At 15-40, Del Potro drove a two-hander deep down the line, but Federer responded with a down the line slice off the forehand. Del Potro erred off the backhand. And so Federer moved to 18-17, and served for the match a second time. He double faulted for 15-30, took the next two points, then squandered a match point with a netted backhand volley after a timid forehand approach. But he regrouped swiftly, lacing a forehand down the line for a winner, then taking a net cord ball from Del Potro and slicing a backhand approach low down the line to lure the Argentine into a passing shot mistake.

Federer had survived this suspenseful and high quality clash almost entirely because of his stellar serving, including 24 aces. Six times he was two points from losing, but he refused to budge. It was a triumph of the will, a tribute to his indomitable spirit. It was Federer the match player at his very best, salvaging a victory when he had every reason to lose. When he had beaten Andy Roddick 16-14 in the fifth set of the 2009 Wimbledon final, Federer had the distinct advantage of serving first in the final set. On this occasion, he was serving from behind almost the entire final set, which was a clear disadvantage. And yet, he somehow denied Del Potro a victory.

For Del Potro, it was a singularly chilling setback as he squandered a chance to play for the gold medal, and to perhaps reignite his career and return to the place he occupied when he toppled Federer to win his lone Grand Slam title back in 2009. Although Del Potro bounced back well to stop Djokovic in the third place match for the bronze medal at the Olympic Games, he still needs to come through in a big match at one of the majors soon to restore his full belief in himself. He played the best tennis I have seen from him since 2009 in that blockbuster with Federer on the lawns last Friday. For the most part, he was better than Federer from the backcourt. His depth, weight of shot and explosive ball striking off both sides had Federer scrambling with regularity. Off both sides, he was striking the ball with more conviction and consistency than the Swiss. That was one of the main reasons why Federer looked so overwrought during his final round clash with Murray; Del Potro made him do an awful lot of stretching and running side to side during the rallies, and forced the Swiss to do a lot of digging and uncomfortable defending. Federer worked inordinately hard to get that victory, and then had almost nothing left for the final.

Meanwhile, Murray was very impressive in his 7-5, 7-5 semifinal win over Djokovic. Perhaps no one in the field wanted to win that gold medal for their country more than Djokovic, who takes such pride in his Serbian heritage. But he never broke Murray in two sets, a remarkable feat for the British player against someone with such an outstanding return of serve. In the opening set, Murray served decidedly better than his opponent. With Djokovic serving at 5-6, 30-30, Murray laced a forehand crosscourt, setting up an inside-out forehand approach. Murray deposited a backhand drop volley into a wide open space. On the following point, Murray drew Djokovic into the net but the Serbian’s approach was neither deep nor forceful enough. Murray passed him easily, crosscourt off the forehand.

The second set contrasted with the first. Murray was down break point in the first, third, ninth and eleventh games, but survived every crisis. For Djokovic not to break once in those four different service games was proof that he is not quite the unassailable big point player he was a year ago, but, in turn, it was evidence that Murray is rising to another level of the game. At 4-4, for instance, he released a scorching service winner wide to Djokovic’s backhand at break point down. At 5-6 in that set, Murray struck again as Djokovic seemed to lose heart. The Serbian made two unforced errors before Murray got to 0-40 with an excellent flat forehand return down the line that was unmanageable for Djokovic. At 0-40, Djokovic served-and-volleyed, but Murray saw it unfolding and kept the return at the feet of his opponent. Djokovic had no play. And so for the second time in four meetings with Djokovic this year, Murray was victorious.

Shifting to the women, the greatness of Serena Williams was a story that overshadowed all others. She conceded only 17 games in six matches, winning an astounding 72 of 89 games. She lost her serve only once in the entire event over those 12 sets. She simply took her game up at least a level, and perhaps more, from where she was in capturing Wimbledon for the fifth time one month earlier. Her performance against Maria Sharapova in the final was probably the best tennis match I have ever seen from a woman player in my lifetime. I have been watching the game devotedly since 1965, and have seen some surpassing demonstrations from the leading players across the years.

But this was a level of play for one day that I have never seen any woman surpass. It was not that Sharapova played badly; Serena simply blew her off the court with unrelenting force, serving of the highest order, returns of breathtaking pace and precision, and a combination of power and consistency that was breathtaking.

Williams commenced her appointment against Sharapova by holding at love with three aces, including a second serve ace at 40-0. She broke Sharapova without the loss of a point. Down 0-30 in the third game, Williams swept four points in a row, including two more aces. Sharapova is as unwavering a competitor as there is in women’s tennis, but Williams was in a world of her own. Sharapova got to 40-30 in the fourth game, but double faulted into the net. Williams was crushing her returns so brilliantly and powerfully that the Russian knew her normal second serve was not going to be enough. After two deuces in that game, Williams broke for 4-0, with a blazing return setting up an inside out forehand winner.

Serena held at 30 for 5-0 with her seventh ace. After Sharapova advanced to 40-15 in the sixth game, Williams imposed her authority again. Sharapova had a third game point, but double faulted wide down the T. Serena’s returns were so piercing and taken so early that Sharapova had no alternative but to go for risky second serves. In 30 minutes, Williams wrapped up the set, 6-0. She had won 28 points, and Sharapova had taken only 12.

There was no stopping her now. Williams held at 15 for 1-0 in the second set, broke Sharapova at 15 with a devastatingly potent forehand return winner down the line, and then held at love for 3-0. She had swept 12 of 14 points to that juncture. At last, Sharapova held in the fourth game of the second set, granting Serena only one point. Williams moved to 40-15 at 3-1, but she was serving into the wind. The 30-year-old American dropped three points in a row, including a double fault for deuce. Sharapova was at break point, but Williams erased it in a hurry with a swing volley winner. Sharapova got to break point for the second time, but the deeply driven American saved that one with a backhand crosscourt winner off a reasonably good return of serve.

Williams held on from there for 4-1, and never looked back. Understandably shaken, Sharapova double faulted twice to fall behind 0-30 in the sixth game. Williams broke her at 15 with a bounce smash winner. Serving for the match at 5-1, Serena came up with a second serve ace for 40-15, and then cracked a scintillating first serve down the T for another ace to wrap up the 6-0, 6-1 account. Serena had given up the fewest number of games ever in a women’s singles final at the Olympic Tennis Event. It had taken a mere 63 minutes. By securing the gold medal in singles for the first time, Williams joins Graf as a female member of the career “Golden Slam” Club. Not only did she destroy Sharapova in London, but she eclipsed Victoria Azarenka 6-1, 6-2 (the world No. 1) and Caroline Wozniacki 6-0, 6-3 (former world No. 1) as well.

Three weeks from now, the U.S. Open will commence. Williams—barring an injury—will be the overwhelming favorite to take the singles title. Since her inexplicable loss in the first round of the French Open to Virginie Razzano, Serena has swept 17 singles matches in a row, winning Wimbledon, the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, California, and now the coveted Olympic gold. She will be stationed at No. 1 in the world by autumn. As for the men at the U.S. Open, the long range view is that Murray is the co-favorite with Federer, with Djokovic right behind that duo as the third most likely to claim the crown. The feeling here is that Murray will finally be transformed by his golden run at the Olympics. His quest to be the best in his profession is more apparent than ever. He has now won the biggest prize available outside of the Grand Slam events. His stature is growing. I believe that he is going to win the U.S. Open.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.