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Steve Flink: Murray prevails in Miami as Sony Open Tennis ends suspensefully

4/1/2013 6:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

In many ways, Andy Murray took a page out of Brad Gilbert’s book at the Sony Open Tennis event on the hard courts of Miami. Murray can often win with awe-inspiring tennis, but yesterday he had to settle for, as Gilbert would say, “winning ugly.” The stalwart British competitor never had his best stuff during a bizarre and uneven final round contest against the Spanish warrior David Ferrer at the Sony Open Tennis event in Miami. The level of play from both players fluctuated wildly, from spectacular and high quality 35 stroke rallies to inexplicable errors, from inspired shotmaking to listless and unimaginative play on both sides of the net, from uncannily accurate, line-clipping shots to pedestrian mistakes on the part of each player. At times, it was an exasperating match to watch because two of the premier performers in tennis—both crippled by nerves at different junctures—never found a lasting rhythm.

And yet, it was fascinating to witness Murray moving past his setbacks and finding his way to a victory that so nearly eluded his grasp. In the end, he was a fortunate yet still worthy champion, saving a match point, besting Ferrer 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (1) to take the title in Miami for the second time. It was the first time he had ever saved a match point in the final round to capture an ATP World Tour event. Murray was also the first man ever to come from match point down in the final of the prestigious Miami tournament that commenced back in 1985.

With his triumph Murray has reached No. 2 in the world, passing Federer in the official Emirates ATP Rankings. When you consider what he has achieved since last summer, it is not surprising that Murray stands behind only Novak Djokovic on the world charts. Across the last nine months, he has won one Grand Slam title, reached two other major finals, and captured the Olympic Games. With a standard that high, it was only a matter of time before Murray would attain the No. 2 spot he first held in the summer of 2009.

Murray surely recognized what a golden opportunity he had in the “Sunshine State”.  Both Federer and Rafael Nadal elected to skip the tournament. Djokovic—bidding for a third consecutive title—was caught thoroughly off guard on a cool evening by a top of the line Tommy Haas, who removed the No. 1 seed 6-2, 6-4 in the round of 16. Murray’s draw was not terribly tough, and he played fine tennis to cut down the likes of Bernard Tomic, Andreas Seppi, Marin Cilic and a seemingly transformed Richard Gasquet. He came into his contest with Ferrer as the clear favorite, but squandered too many prime chances in the opening set. At the game’s uppermost level, the big points are the defining factor above all else, and Murray had seldom been so vulnerable in that area.

In the opening game of the match, Ferrer was serving at 15-40, but Murray failed to exploit his two break point opportunities. Murray had two game points in the second game but did not hold. After Ferrer held comfortably for 3-0, Murray had 40-15 and three game points altogether before wounding himself again by not bearing down assiduously when it mattered. Serving at 4-0, Ferrer faced another break point, but Murray missed a forehand return and the Spaniard went ahead 5-0. In four of those five games, Murray had been at either game or break point once or more, to no avail. Nevertheless, Murray managed to take the next two games, only to surrender his serve for the third time in the set, serving two double faults in the final game. Ferrer deservedly took that set 6-2, helped largely by the haphazard play of his disjointed opponent.

Inevitably, Murray found his range and his bearings early in the second set. Realizing his flatter shots off both sides were not fully there, he decided to mix it up, going for broke only selectively, grinding it out with the Spaniard in grueling backcourt exchanges. To be sure, Ferrer is among his sport’s most commendable practitioners, a competitor of the front rank, a man of steely resolve and staunch character. But he had not been made to play that well in the opening set. Murray now seized the initiative, improving his mechanics and ball control decidedly. In the opening set, he had made 16 unforced errors, seven more than the persistent Ferrer.

They reversed roles to a large degree in the second set. After Ferrer held to start the set, Murray captured four of the next five games, hitting as many balls as possible deep down the middle without too much pace to draw errors from the Spaniard off his vulnerable forehand side. Murray should have probably sealed the set sooner. Ferrer was serving at 2-4, 30-40 when he virtually stole a crucial point from his attacking adversary. Murray had one chance to put away a high forehand volley, another to dispatch an overhead into the clear, but did not angle those shots away acutely, and the indefatigable Ferrer earned an enormous ovation from the appreciative audience by finally luring Murray into a forehand error to conclude an absorbing and exhilarating 24 stroke rally.

Ever the opportunist, Ferrer made it back to 4-4 in the second set, but Murray collected eight of the next ten points to take the set. That set the stage for a final set of high intrigue across the board. The debilitating 20 to 30 stroke rallies drained both men physically and mentally, but they fought on valiantly. The fact remained that Murray kept building leads that he could not exploit on a day when cheap points were nearly impossible to come by on his serve. The final set commenced with no fewer than six consecutive service breaks. Murray had a game point for 3-1 but double faulted, and then served another double fault at break point down in that important game. As the two players were locked at 3-3 in that final set, there had been only eleven holds and 13 breaks in the match, but that happened in part because Murray and Ferrer are two of the three best returners in tennis.

In any case, Murray and Federer were fighting through fatigue, tension and considerable discomfort. After Ferrer held for 4-3 in the final set, he asked for the trainer to help with cramps in his upper leg, and the Spaniard was allowed to have the trainer help him at the next two changeovers as well. Murray looked exhausted and listless at times. But he broke Ferrer one last time at 4-4 and served for the match in the tenth game. At 15-0, Murray had an opening for a topspin lob winner off the forehand when Ferrer approached meekly off the forehand, but the British player sent it long. Ferrer broke back, held, and then had match point with Murray serving at 5-6. Murray drove an inside-in forehand deep that Ferrer believed could be long. On the defense behind the baseline, Ferrer made a good defensive stab at that ball and got it back into play. But he stopped the point, making the difficult, split-second decision to challenge the call. Both players waited apprehensively for the replay on the big screen, but Murray’s shot had clipped the edge of the baseline. He then produced a clutch body serve that Ferrer could not handle, and then the Spaniard made a glaring backhand unforced error.

It was 6-6 in the final set, and time for a fitting, final set tie-break to decide the outcome of the encounter. But CBS television had announced in advance that they would have to leave the tennis and fulfill a commitment to put basketball on the air. They informed the viewers that the tie-break could be seen on Tennis Channel, but clearly a sizeable chunk of the audience had to miss the conclusion of the match. Thankfully, some tennis fans got to see the end by switching over to Tennis Channel, but too many others were out of luck.

This was a serious injustice to loyal fans who had watched every point of a fascinating clash for nearly three hours. Tennis fans have often had to wait for basketball games that have gone into overtime to be completed, but in this instance CBS clearly had a contractual obligation to leave the tennis, and that is precisely what they did. The Sony Open Tennis event deserved a much kinder fate than that. The loyal viewers who sat in their homes watching the entire match on CBS should have seen the end of the contest, but many were denied that opportunity. To be sure, Tennis Channel came to the rescue, but they could only repair a small part of the damage to devoted followers of the sport who must have felt sorely cheated.

As is turned out, the tie-break was largely anti-climactic. Ferrer was unmistakably hampered by the cramps, his movement largely restricted. Murray stepped up to that situation admirably. After Ferrer’s forehand clipped the net cord but did not go over on the first point of the tie-break, Murray had the immediate mini-break. Murray cracked an inside-in forehand winner, and Ferrer followed with an unforced error off his two-hander. It was 3-0 for Murray, and he would never look back, reaching 4-0 on another unprovoked mistake from the ailing Spaniard, this one off the forehand.

Ferrer fired one last service winner to make it 4-1 for Murray, but Ferrer erred with a slice backhand and then drove a backhand return long. Murray closed it out, taking the sequence 7-1 with a patented backhand down the line return that was close to a winner. Murray has won his first title of 2013, his ninth ATP World Tour Masters 1000 crown, and his 26th career singles championship. It wasn’t pretty, and he could easily have found himself on the other end of the outcome, but Murray willed his way to a significant victory.

His triumph was hard-earned and well-fought, the product of his deep determination. But why he was so tired in the final set was baffling to me. He played two far more exhausting five set matches against Djokovic in the semifinals of the 2012 Australian Open and the final of the 2012 U.S. Open, and those contests lasted far longer. This one was two hours and 45 minutes and the points were often inordinately difficult, but I was surprised that Murray was so depleted by three rugged sets with Ferrer. Murray is, after all, a superbly conditioned athlete. The bottom line is he still survived despite his weariness.

Meanwhile, Serena Williams was victorious at the Sony Open Tennis for a women’s record sixth time. She stopped Maria Sharapova in the final, eclipsing her rival for the eleventh time in a row to raise her record to 12-2 over the Russian. But Sharapova acquitted herself remarkably well in this final. She had lost 13 consecutive sets to her American rival, and had suffered some bruising defeats in the process. In her last five losses against the intimidating Serena, Sharapova had garnered only 21 games in ten desultory sets. That was hardly encouraging as she approached her appointment with Williams in Miami.

But Sharapova played some of the finest tennis of her career in a frustrating yet still impressive 4-6, 6-3, 6-0 loss to the American. Sharapova not only took the opening set, but went up a break at 3-2 in the second. Her tennis during that stretch was nothing less than stupendous. Maria served Serena into the body with substantial rewards, stood toe to toe with her rival from the baseline, and was much more solid off the forehand side. Sharapova returned serve better than she has against Williams in the last several years, taking a very aggressive posture—especially off Serena’s second serve. Her assertiveness and excellent execution plainly caught Williams by surprise, and threw Serena thoroughly off her game.

If Williams was as apprehensive as she appeared to be, it was with good reason. Sharapova had a first rate gameplan. She sent a barrage of balls to Serena’s forehand, kept serving into the body, was bold in a calculated way on her second serve, and took control of rallies with her extraordinary depth and excellent ball striking. The signs were evident from early on that Sharapova was ready for the first time in ages to prevent Williams from taking utter control and imposing herself mercilessly. Sharapova’s mindset seemed different; she was determined to play this match more on her own terms.

With Williams serving at 1-1 in the first set, Sharapova took the top server in the women’s game to deuce eight times. Thrice, Sharapova reached break point before she was thwarted. At 2-2, however, Sharapova reapplied herself ably. With Williams serving at 30-40, Sharapova sent an exceedingly deep return off the forehand down the middle, and Serena was rocked back on her heels. She netted a backhand. Sharapova had the break for 3-2, but Serena promptly retaliated, breaking back for 3-3. Yet Sharapova remained resolute and quietly confident. After Williams held for 4-3, Sharapova collected three games in a row.

Williams saved a break point at 4-4 with an ace, but then double faulted and netted an arduous running forehand. Surging with renewed vigor at 5-4, Sharapova held at love for the set, playing that game with cool authority. Predictably, a determined Williams went to work with a new level of intensity, taking eight of ten points to go up 2-0 in the second set. But, once more, Sharapova struck back forcefully. She broke at 15 for 1-2, held at 30 for 2-2, and broke again at love to take a 3-2 second set lead, releasing three dazzling shots in that game, including a backhand down the line winner, a forehand down the line winner, and a magnificent backhand inside-in return winner.

The next game was pivotal. An unwavering Williams broke back at love for 3-3 as Maria missed three out of four first serves. Williams had averted a 4-2 deficit and was ready to roll. She held at 15 for 4-3, broke Sharapova after a couple of deuces for 5-3, and then held from 0-30 to secure the set. Her four game run to close the set carried her into the third set with full conviction. In the final set, Williams was an unshakable force, breaking Sharapova in the opening game, becoming unstoppable thereafter. In that match concluding set, Williams won 24 of 34 points, sweeping to a 4-6, 6-3, 6-0 triumph, taking ten games in a row to close the proceedings, garnering her 48th career WTA Tour singles title. The critical game of the last set was the third. From 30-30, Sharapova double faulted long, then double faulted into the net. The increasing velocity and precision of Serena’s returns became too much for Sharapova to contain, and the old seeds of doubt crept back into the Russian’s mind.

To be sure, Serena had struggled inordinately in the earlier stages of the tournament. Dominika Cibulkova built a commanding 6-2, 4-1 lead before an out of sorts made amends and rallied for a 2-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory. Li Na gave Serena some anxious moments in a 6-3, 7-6 (5) loss. But by the time Williams routed Agnieszka Radwanska 6-0, 6-3 in the semifinals, she had raised her game markedly. Having not won a tournament since Brisbane at the start of the season, Williams was enormously eager for this occasion, reaffirming that she is the best woman tennis player in the world, winning despite seldom elevating her game to peak efficiency.

Meanwhile, Tommy Haas—who will turn 35 this week—had a marvelous tournament. He lost his serve only once against Djokovic, who conceded that the former world No. 2 had taken him out of his game and made him play badly. Haas then took apart Gilles Simon and had a fighting chance to reach the final, establishing a 3-1 final set lead against Ferrer before his ground game deteriorated down the stretch. As for Djokovic, the view here is that he will put this loss quickly behind him, come back strong in Davis Cup against the U.S this weekend, and move out onto the clay after that with rekindled determination.

Murray’s triumph in Miami will serve him well in the weeks ahead. Like Williams, he had not won a tournament since Brisbane. Whether or not he plays his best tennis on the clay, he is going to be awfully tough to beat at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.  He did not rule in Miami with his usual flair and imagination, but “winning ugly” is sometimes the way it must be done.
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.