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Steve Flink: New Decade, Same Roger

1/31/2010 11:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

Roger Federer had concluded his 2009 campaign unconvincingly. After capturing his first French Open in June and his record breaking 15 th major crown at Wimbledon the following month, Federer was victorious in Cincinnati. Thereafter, he did not win another tournament, falling in a tumultuous five set final at the U.S. Open against Juan Martin Del Potro, taking some much needed time off, then finishing the year with a string of losses against Novak Djokovic, Julien Benneteau, Del Potro and Nikolay Davydenko. In his opening event of 2010, he was upended in the semifinals of Doha by Davydenko again, suffering a second straight defeat against a man he had never lost to in 12 previous career showdowns.

More than a few authorities believed Federer was on the decline, perhaps complacent after his heroics in Paris and London last year, maybe distracted and content after the birth of his twins in the summer of 2009. While no one counted him out as he headed into the first major of 2010, many members of the cognoscenti were skeptical that Federer could summon the inspiration to scale the heights at the Australian Open. What more did he need to prove? How much more could he ask of himself? Why would he want to put himself through another rigorous campaign when he had already done it all so stylishly and elegantly across so many years?

Federer answered all of those questions emphatically in the course of defeating Andy Murray 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (11) for his fourth title triumph at the Australian Open. In securing a 16 th victory in 22 major finals, Federer took another step into the realm of history. He has now garnered at least one Grand Slam championship for eight consecutive years (2003-2010), and is now tied with Bjorn Borg (1974-81) and Pete Sampras (1993-2000) for that men’s record of consistency at the premier events. He has also set the wheels in motion for another stupendous season. The three previous times he was the victor in Melbourne—2004, 2006, and 2007--- Federer went on to win two more majors over the course of those years. In those cases, he established himself unequivocally as the game’s pace setter, and with his latest win on the hard courts in Australia, he is setting the pace again and forcing all of his adversaries to stand up and take notice.

Murray will surely do just that. He walked on court for this pivotal appointment with the world No. 1 holding a 6-4 career edge in their head-to-head series. Murray had lost his last two meetings with Federer in the second half of 2009, but had prevailed in six of their previous seven confrontations.  Although Murray had been picked apart in a straight set final by the Swiss maestro at the 2008 U.S. Open final the first time he had appeared in a Grand Slam final, the British player had been at or near the top of his game for the entire fortnight in Melbourne, dropping just one set in six matches, peaking in a pulsating skirmish with defending champion Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals, adapting his game beautifully to account for the likes of John Isner and Marin Cilic. Back in a major final for the second time, Murray seemed poised, purposeful, and highly motivated to match Federer’s feat of securing a first Grand Slam title on his 17 th career attempt.

Federer, however, had other notions. In his own quiet but pointed way, he taunted Murray prior to their battle by saying that Murray needed the title more than he did, by stressing that Murray had more pressure on him because no British man had won a major since Fred Perry in 1936, by excusing previous defeats against his rival as the product of not being at his “very best.” This was gamesmanship of a high order, a way of getting inside the psyche of Murray and planting seeds of doubt in his mind. Perhaps it was also a sign that Federer had his own doubts and insecurities about beating Murray and was simply playing mind games with someone much less experienced in that arena. I thought it was regrettable and unseemly, beneath the dignity of such a towering champion.

The bottom line is that Federer backed up his words with actions, went out and beat Murray comprehensively between the lines, and demonstrated that at 28 his aspirations remain large and his capacity to bring out the best in himself on big occasions is still unparalleled. At the outset of the Federer-Murray skirmish, both players seemed to be somewhat on edge as they looked to assert their authority and establish a rhythm in humid and slow conditions.

Federer had taken another dig at Murray before the match by saying that his opponent needed to win the first set more than he did. The facts suggested otherwise, for Murray had four times recouped from a set down in best of three set contests to stop Federer. A best of five set match is an entirely different animal and another ballgame altogether, but the fact remained that neither man wanted to cede any ground early. In the opening game of the match, Murray had a chance to strike an important blow against Federer and to simultaneously boost his own morale. He drove a two-hander cleanly down the line for a winner, and then Federer netted a topspin backhand to go down 0-30.

An immediate service break there could have been immensely beneficial to Murray, but Federer took control of the next two points with unbridled aggression, and went on to hold. Murray was unmistakably apprehensive in the following game, double faulting into the net to trail 0-30. Federer seized on that impressively, unleashing a dazzling topspin backhand down the line winner for 0-40, breaking at 15 with a terrific inside out forehand winner. Federer was swiftly at 2-0, but his progress was temporarily halted by a determined Murray. Despite connecting with five consecutive first serves in the third game, Federer won only one point and was broken as Murray closed out that game with consecutive down the line passing shot winners, one off each side.

Murray soon made it back to 2-2, and had another opening in the fifth game as Federer served at 15-40. Federer missed his first serve on the first break point but Murray drove a backhand long. Then Federer stepped up his game, saving the second break point with a nearly untouchable serve wide to the backhand in the Ad court. Murray earned a third break point, but netted a backhand pass. Now Federer had found his rhythm on serve, and he aced Murray down the T in the deuce court and then out wide in the Ad court to advance to 3-2. The key game of the set was when Murray served at 3-4. He was called for a double fault on the first point, but should have challenged because the replay showed that his second serve had hit the line.

Murray recovered to 30-30, but Federer played one of his most artistic points of the match to reach 30-40, angling a topspin backhand acutely crosscourt to pull Murray way out of position, and then lacing a topspin backhand exquisitely down the line for a winner. On the following point, Federer took utter control off the forehand, stepping around his backhand to drive one shot deep to the Murray forehand, then cracking the next one inside-out and well out of Murray’s reach.

Just like that, Federer had the break and was serving for the set. He played a commanding game that included an ace and an attention grabbing forehand winner. Federer held easily at the cost of only one point, and the set belonged convincingly to him. As the second set commenced, Federer was plainly brimming with confidence while Murray seemed disconsolate. Murray had won only 4 of 12 second serve points in the first set, had lost his serve twice, and was not sparring well enough with Federer from the backcourt. He sensed that Federer was out to destroy him.

At 1-1, Federer broke a sagging Murray at love, reaching 0-40 in that game after Murray came at him with a forehand drive volley that the Swiss answered by driving a clean forehand into the clear. Murray could easily have lost the second set more decisively. At 1-3, he double faulted his way into a 15-40 corner, but then aced Federer and held on. At 2-4, he was in a 0-40 predicament, but he somehow escaped and found a way to hold again. Federer was not impressed. He served two aces and held at love for 5-3. Serving for the set in the tenth game, Federer conceded only one point as he marched to a two sets to love lead.

Federer has never wasted a two sets to love lead at a Grand Slam event, and seemed likely to cast Murray aside quickly in the third set. That was not the case at all. Murray now picked up the pace of his shots significantly, raised his first serve percentage decidedly, and put forth an honorable effort to keep himself in the match. More and more, he took control of rallies. Federer was forced to go to the forehand slice and defend more than he would have liked, while Murray was hitting the ball much bigger and taking some necessary risks.

Federer was serving at 2-3, 0-40 when he saved two break points. On the third, Murray played two percentage passing shots, and after the second he came forward to punch a forehand volley past Federer with both players at the net. Murray had the luxury of a 4-2 lead, and an ace down the T at 40-15 in the following game lifted him to 5-2. At 5-3, Murray put in six out of eight first serves, but he did not hold to close out the set. At 30-40, he sent out a 133 MPH service winner to Federer’s backhand, but he lost the next two points as Federer gave nothing away.

On they went to a tie-break, and in that sequence Murray had every conceivable chance to prevail. He played one of his best strategic points of the match with Federer serving at 4-5. Murray drew Federer into the net on his terms with a short backhand slice, and then rolled his forehand pass at his rival’s feet to force an error on the volley. Federer saved the first set point against him on his serve, but Murray had the set on his racket when he served at 6-5. He served to Federer’s backhand, got a short return, drove a two-hander crosscourt, and Federer could only scrape that ball back into play with no depth. Murray stepped forward for an aggressive forehand, but sent that shot overanxiously into the net.

It was 6-6 but Murray moved to 7-6 with a third set point. Federer saved that as Murray missed a backhand volley down the line. Federer aced Murray to reach match point for the first time. Murray got to the net and made a solid forehand volley, forcing Federer to play a difficult forehand pass down the line. The shot was wide. It was 8-8. Murray quickly made it 9-8 for his fourth set point, but Federer was serving. The Swiss played a safe backhand volley crosscourt that Murray answered with a topspin lob that was long and wide.

Now it was 9-9. Federer took that point for 10-9, and he was at match point for the second time. Federer attacked Murray’s second serve, got the short ball he wanted, and gambled with a forehand drop shot on his approach to the net. Murray scampered forward quickly and steered a backhand down the line passing shot for a winner. Murray took the next point to lead 11-10, reaching set point for the fifth time. Federer saved that one with an excellent first serve to the backhand that was unanswerable, then rolled a forehand winner behind Murray for his third match point.

Murray missed his first serve, yet still had a good look at a backhand down the line. He drove it into the net. Federer had survived a nerve-wracking tie-break to close out the account in straight sets, depriving Murray of a chance to stage an improbable comeback. For Federer, it was another impressive display of character when it counts, coming through to regain a title he last won in 2007. It was a timely win that will carry him forward and raise his stature once more as an unshakable man who still cares as much about his craft as anyone in the business.

As for Murray, this one will be terribly hard for him to digest. When he lost to Federer in the 2008 US Open final, he was understandably compromised. He had started his match with Rafael Nadal on Saturday, but rain forced him to return the next day to complete the match. Murray led two sets to one, and he finished off Nadal in a fourth set on Sunday. Federer was resting by then, having completed his semifinal contest against Djokovic on Saturday. He crushed a vulnerable Murray on Monday in straight sets. But Murray seemed almost certain to capture a major in 2009.

That, of course, did not happen. His best chance was at Wimbledon, but he was surprised by a strategically sound Andy Roddick in the semifinals. Nevertheless, Murray was a total professional as he moved confidently through the draw in Melbourne, and this time against Federer he and his supporters had every reason to believe his time had come. Instead, he was outplayed by the masterful Federer, and he made his move too late in the final. Even if he had won the third set, winning two more in a row was going to be next to impossible.

So Murray must wait a little longer. He should not despair. Andre Agassi did not break through to win his first Grand Slam title until he appeared in his fourth major final, winning Wimbledon at 22 in 1992. Ivan Lendl did not garner his first Grand Slam tournament crown until he made it to his fifth “Big Four” final in 1984 at the French Open when he was 24. That was his 19th career Grand Slam event. Murray is still on course despite this jarring setback. Murray will be 23 in May. He has too much talent and temerity to be left much longer without a major.

Federer, meanwhile, is right where he wants to be as the master of his universe. He will be 29 in August, but he isn’t acting his age at all. Federer is playing like a man three or four years younger, moving and scrambling with astounding alacrity, displaying remarkable stamina. His commitment to his craft is unswerving. His greatness endures. None of this is very good news for any of his foremost adversaries as they try to remove him from the pinnacle of his profession.

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