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Steve Flink: Murray on the Move

7/28/2008 2:10:00 PM

by Steve Flink

About Andy Murray, it was been apparent for quite a while now that he would some day find himself among the elite in his profession. Despite a sometimes self destructive temper, he always seemed--- at least as I saw it--- to have the mindset of a champion. He had an unmistakable vision on the tennis court, an innate sense of how to read his opponents, a large sense of who he was and what he might eventually accomplish. And he achieved progress on his own terms, in small chunks, with firm resolve. At the end of 2006, when he was only 19, he finished the season at No. 17 in the world. Upon the conclusion of 2007, despite a long stretch sidelined with a wrist injury, he moved purposefully to No. 11 in the rankings.

But now, after winning his first Masters Series crown in Cincinnati, he stands at a career high No. 6 in the world. And yet, that number does not do full justice to Murray on current form. Nikolay Davydenko is No. 4, and David Ferrer resides at No. 5. Both men, slumping figures over the course of the 2008 season, reached the U.S. Open semifinals a year ago. I am convinced Murray will move past those individuals to his rightful place at No. 4 in the world, either immediately after the U.S. Open or not far past that point. At 21, he has moved swiftly to another level in the last few months, and over the next few years his stock will rise considerably.

Let's look at what Murray has done in recent weeks. He reached his first Grand Slam tournament quarterfinal at Wimbledon before the eventual champion Rafael Nadal cut him down comprehensively. He went to Toronto and made it to the semifinal round there, toppling Novak Djokovic for the first time in their head to head series, losing a hard fought encounter with Nadal. In Cincinnati, he captured the biggest title of his young career. In the quarterfinals of that event, he was down 2-6, 0-2, 15-40 to the wily Carlos Moya. After reaching 30-40, he made a highly improbable "inside in" forehand winner after the Spaniard blocked a backhand return back deep and low, forcing Murray into his back foot.

A determined Murray struck back to win 12 of the next 14 games to win that match, then cut down the imposing 6'10" Ivo Karlovic 6-4, 6-4 in the semifinals (breaking the game's most daunting server four times in that contest), and then beat Djokovic for the second week in a row 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) in the championship match. To handle Djokovic in back to back matches on hard courts was no small achievement.

The world No. 3 has, after all, won the Australian Open and Indian Wells on hard courts this season. He reached the final of the U.S. Open last year. His game is tailor made for that surface. Nearly all of his adversaries can not contain him from the back of the court because his ground game is so penetrating and his first serve is one of the best in the game. In Cincinnati, Djokovic seemed ready to make a serious statement about himself and his game.

He took apart the gifted and swiftly improving Ernests Gulbis in a straight set quarterfinal, and then cut down Rafael Nadal in an immaculately played seminal. Nadal, of course, had collected 32 match victories and five titles in a row. The Spaniard had guaranteed himself the world No. 1 ranking by August 18 after making it to the penultimate round in Cincinnati.

To be sure, Nadal was beaten up by the time he arrived for his meeting with Djokovic and perhaps ripe in some ways for a loss after playing so much high level tennis. That was his ninth match in a grueling eleven day span, a price he paid for winning Toronto the previous week. This was not a top of the line Nadal who stepped on court to face Djokovic. Nonetheless, Djokovic was superb, swinging his first serve wide in the deuce court, opening up the court for his scorching inside-out forehand. His tactics and execution were beyond reproach and he did not lose his serve in a 6-1, 7-5 triumph over his formidable adversary.

Following that victory, Djokovic, who has not won a tournament since capturing the Italian Open in May, was primed to secure another championship. Furthermore, he did not want to lose to Murray two weeks in a row, particularly after giving a disappointing performance in Toronto against the British No. 1. In that battle, Djokovic was caught off guard by a Murray who came after him with unexpected force and pace in the rallies. He surely wanted to make amends in Cincinnati.

But Murray demonstrated emphatically that he is a much more dangerous player than he was even a few months ago. He outplayed Djokovic virtually across the board in a hard fought showdown, coming through 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) on a day when the sun was beating down fiercely and the temperature was often soaring to 100 degrees. Djokovic threw everything he had in his substantial arsenal at Murray, but in the end it was all to no avail.

Djokovic was fortunate even to reach the first set tie-break. He was always under pressure on serve against a player who now has one of the two or three best returns in the sport. In that tie-break, Murray frustrated Djokovic time and again with his speed, supreme ball control, and precision. Djokovic simply could not conclude rallies; over and over again, Murray made him play one extra shot. In turn, Murray's anticipation was excellent.

In the second set, Murray was poised for victory as he served for the match at 5-3. Four times, he reached match point. Murray's forehand clipped the net cord and flew long on the first one, and Djokovic saved the rest with audacious shot making, including two outright winners and a daring drop shot that provoked an error. The Murray of times gone by would have been deeply shaken by such a lost opportunity, and might well have lost the contest with his spirits sinking and his temper flaring.

That was not the case here. Despite not serving out the match, he rose to the occasion in the second set tie-break. Djokovic damaged his chances for a revival with a double fault to fall behind 2-4, but still recovered to 4-4. By now, recognizing that his offense was not getting the job done, he was playing some extraordinary defense in a bold attempt to turn the tables on Murray. But, on the critical 4-4 point, with Djokovic scraping back one ball after another and doing everything in his power to lure Murray into an apprehensive error, the young man from Scotland stepped up in the biggest possible way.

Murray found an opening to drive his two-handed backhand crosscourt into the clear, and came through with a timely and devastating winner. He was ahead for good at 5-4. A shaken Djokovic double faulted to go down double match point, and two points later Murray confidently closed out the account with a terrific first serve setting up a clean backhand winner down the line.

This fellow is growing up fast, and he has the game to back up his lofty ambitions. Murray has improved his first serve significantly. His two-hander is one of the soundest in the game. And he is now a more diversified player, no longer spending so much time defending, much more eager to take charge of rallies. He used to hit too many slice forehands but now he is blasting away off that side much more convincingly. That forehand is holding up much better under pressure.

Don't misunderstand me: I am not saying Murray has it made. This was his first Masters Series tournament win, and we have yet to see him perform in even a semifinal at a Grand Slam event. But he will be a serious contender at both the Olympic Games and the U.S. Open. The guess here is that Murray will go deep into both draws. At the Open, he could well make it to the penultimate round, and might even get to the final.

I don't believe he is quite ready yet to win a major, but he is closing in rapidly on that goal. He has beaten Roger Federer the last two times they have played, winning both on hard courts. He has Djokovic confounded, at least for the time being. He has not beaten the redoubtable Nadal, but has had some remarkable clashes with the Spaniard, including a five set skirmish at the 2007 Australian Open and that high quality semifinal in Toronto.

Quite clearly, Andy Murray is going places. He has a decent chance of winning a major in 2008. He is not afraid of anyone. He has a growing awareness of himself and his potential. The way I see it, he will be around the upper regions of the game for the next five years, and he is thinking more and more like a champion. Tennis could do a whole lot worse than to have Murray in the mix.

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