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Steve Flink: Murray Serves Notice

10/20/2008 5:26:00 PM

by Steve Flink

As Andy Murray captured his second Masters Series crown of the season in Madrid convincingly, I was reminded of something Brad Gilbert told me only days before the highly charged 21-year-old went to work in Spain. A prescient Gilbert said, "I think Murray could serve bigger. He has kind of been used to working his serve, but as you get older serving bigger gets you more free points and then you work a little less hard. When Murray serves well, his game goes up tenfold."

Watching on television as Murray won that tournament, I had the odd feeling that it was as if Murray had somehow heard his former coach reminding him how much of a key the serve really is to how well he performs in big matches. In a hard fought and high quality semifinal clash against Roger Federer, Murray lost his serve only once in three tough sets. In his final round duel with Gilles Simon, Murray did not lose his serve in the match, did not even face a break point, and was never even stretched to deuce. And he did not hold back in the least, releasing big serves whenever he needed them, serving no fewer than 14 aces in his 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 triumph over Federer, adding ten more in his 6-4, 7-6 (6) victory over Simon. Against Simon, Murray made good on 66% of his first serves, and won 84% of those points.

To be sure, the conditions at the indoor event in Madrid were remarkably quick. The altitude was a factor in speeding things up. But Murray became the master of his own destiny by serving probably better than he ever has before in closing out the last two matches. Consider what he did against Federer as he toppled the Swiss maestro for the third time in their last four meetings. At 2-3 in the opening set, Murray ran around his backhand to crack a forehand down the line, but he drove the ball long to lose that game. Federer--- who had not been broken once in his three impressive victories over Radek Stepanek, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Juan Martin Del Potro--- prolonged that pattern as he swept through the opening set against Murray.

Thereafter, Murray not only returned far better than his illustrious adversary, but also his serve was virtually unstoppable. He won 20 of 26 points on serve in the second set and broke Federer once to get even at one set all. In the third set, Murray fended off a break point at 0-1, serving-and-volleying his way out of that precarious corner and holding on for 1-1. From that juncture, he served two love games in a row. He survived one more crisis. At 3-4, Murray was down 0-30, but he responded with striking poise and clarity of purpose.

Murray is one of the few players willing and fully capable of challenging Federer on the Swiss player's revered forehand side. In the baseline exchanges, he used his flat two-hander down the line to provoke errors from Federer, and the depth and accuracy of his crosscourt forehand lured Federer into additional forehand mistakes. Realizing he was in a bind at 3-4, 0-30 in the third, Murray wisely sent a slice serve wide to the Federer forehand. Federer drove a forehand return down the line that missed. At 15-30, Murray's hit short and low to the forehand, and Federer made an errant approach shot. Another Federer miss--- this one a running forehand down the line--- lifted Murray to 40-30, and then he held on from deuce for 4-4.

Murray faced another potential crisis of sorts when he served to save the match at 4-5 in that gripping final set. At 40-30, he aced Federer out wide in the ad court to reach 5-5. Now it was his time to seize control. Federer had held from 0-40 at 1-1, and had been break point down again at 2-2. But Murray would not let Federer loose at 5-5. The 13 time Grand Slam tournament champion saved two more break points from 15-40, but Murray converted on his third break point of that game by walloping a flat two-handed backhand down the line that Federer could not handle.

Serving for the match at 6-5, Murray was down 0-15 but then connected with two more aces for 30-15. He held at 30 to wrap up an uplifting triumph, thus avenging his straight set loss to Federer in the U.S. Open final and demonstrating in the process that his game matches up quite well against his formidable adversary. One reason he won was his capacity to rally comfortably with Federer from the back of the court, changing pace adroitly, covering the court with his usual swiftness and ease, displaying his match playing acumen all the way through.

But the primary reason Murray prevailed was his exemplary serving. He released 10 of his 14 aces in the final set and connected with 61% of his first serves, winning an astounding 84% of those points. His flat deliveries down the T in the deuce court and out wide in the ad court were the twin motors of his success. What a contrast this was from the U.S. Open title round skirmish, when Murray was broken seven times and won only 51% of his first serve points in much tougher conditions with the wind swirling forcefully in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

As for Murray's performance in the Madrid final against Simon, it was admirably professional. Here again, his serve largely carried him to victory. He won 20 of 25 points on serve in the opening set and 24 of 34 in the second set. Simon never came close to breaking him, and Murray saved his best stuff for the consequential times. At 5-4 in the first set, he held at 15 with three aces. In that game, he did not miss a first serve. At 4-5, 40-30 in the second set, he aced Simon again. And then in the second set tie-break, Murray was a clutch performer, rescuing himself from 4-6, double set point down, collecting four points in a row to finish the job.

It had been a stupendous week for Simon, the 23-year-old Frenchman who is fighting hard for a place among the "elite eight" at the year-end event in Shanghai. Simon started the week by saving four match points and defeating Igor Andreev in a final set tie-break. Then he rallied to beat James Blake 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, an especially good win considering that the American had twice defeated Simon over the summer. Next he saved two match points against Robby Ginepri, winning that one in a final set tie-break.

Simon was not through with his heroics. He battled back from a break down at 0-3 in the final set to oust Ivo Karlovic in another final set tie-break. That set the stage for a singularly inspired performance against Rafael Nadal. The Nadal-Simon semifinal followed the Murray-Federer collision. Nadal knew when he walked on court that Federer's setback guaranteed that the Spaniard would finish 2008 at No. 1 in the world. That was a large dream realized by Nadal. Perhaps it took away a bit of his edge, but he still fought his heart out for three hours and 22 minutes.

Nadal had won 71 of 72 matches this year after taking the opening set; there is no better front runner in the business. But this was one of those rare occasions when he could not polish off an opponent despite countless opportunities to do so. He won the first set 6-3 with a pair of service breaks. Then he led 2-1, 0-40 in the second set but squandered that chance to break open the match, missing a forehand drop shot into the net at 15-40 with Simon trapped well behind the baseline. At 4-3, Nadal had another break point. Had he converted, he would have been serving for the match. But he missed a routine two-hander into the net.

Simon served for that set but Nadal broke back for 5-5 with a devastating angled backhand drop shot winner from behind the baseline. At 5-5, he led 40-15 but made a surprising forehand unforced error, smothering that shot into the net. Simon stole that game, and took the set deservedly 7-5. Nadal regrouped in the third set, dropping only one point in his first three service games. Despite wasting six break points in the second game of that final set, Nadal finally broke for 4-2. He promptly lost his serve with another unforced mistake off the backhand side.

Simon was scurrying all over the court, prolonging the rallies most of the time, beating Nadal to the punch at other junctures by taking chances and ripping forehands down the line. Moreover, his trademark shot--- the two-handed backhand down the line--- was coming through for the Frenchman repeatedly. He served for the match at 6-5 but Nadal willed his way back to 6-6, and then went ahead 3-1 in the tiebreak. With a chance to serve his way to 4-1, Nadal ran around his backhand to drill a forehand. And yet, rather than going for his signature shot--- the inside-out forehand--- Nadal went back down the line and missed badly. His shot selection on this occasion was well below par.

This was just not Nadal's day. The Spaniard's customary combination of patience and aggression was missing; he was too conservative in some cases, and uncharacteristically impatient and error prone in other instances. Simon was unbelievably resilient. To some degree, he beat Nadal at his own game, defending magnificently and forcing Nadal to keep hitting two or three extra shots to finish off points. Simon won four points in a row for a 5-3 tie-break lead, and then had his first match point with Nadal serving at 5-6. Nadal produced a brilliant forehand down the line approach to force an error from Simon, but two points later it was over. Nadal drove a backhand pass down the line that was called in, but Simon challenged and the replay went in his favor. Simon prevailed gallantly 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (6).

I have seldom enjoyed watching a tournament on television more than this one. The tennis was first rate, and it reminded me that when there is no wind, sun, or burdensome hot or cold weather to thwart the competitors, the level of play often rises substantially on both sides of the net. The fans at this indoor event in Madrid got to see more than their share of spectacular tennis all week long. As for Andy Murray, he is the game's most improved player over the second half of the year. More and more, I like his chances to win a major in 2009. After all, Murray is serving notice that he has what it takes to compete with the very best in his profession.

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