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Steve Flink: Miami Rhapsody

4/6/2009 4:15:00 PM

by Steve Flink

He has now secured three titles in the still young season of 2009. Over the course of this year, he has toppled Roger Federer twice, upended Rafael Nadal once, and has suffered a mere two defeats in 28 matches. His one big setback was a fourth round, five set loss against an inspired Fernando Verdasco at the Australian Open. But after capturing the single most important tennis championship of his career at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami with a straight set triumph over Novak Djokovic on Sunday, Andy Murray has only reinforced my view that he will win either Wimbledon or the U.S. Open this year. The 21-year-old keeps adding layers to his game, continues to progress substantially as a match player and competitor, and is giving us every indication that he is on the verge of travelling to that elite territory reserved only for major champions.

Let's consider how well he acquitted himself on the hard courts in Florida last week. After a first round bye, he had a disconcerting start against Juan Monaco in the second round. Murray dropped the first set and was performing decidedly below his normal level, but he fought back for a comfortable three set triumph. He had some anxious moments against the unsettling Nicolas Massu, but got through that one in straight sets. Murray then found his range, crushing Viktor Troicki at the cost of only one game, casting aside a discombobulated Verdasco 6-1, 6-2, and then finding his way past Juan Martin Del Potro 6-1, 5-7, 6-2 in the semifinals.

That was a good effort from the British player. Del Potro had come off a startling victory over Rafael Nadal, rescuing himself from 0-3 and two breaks down in the final set to oust the world No. 1 in a tie-break. The Nadal-Del Potro match was bizarre in many ways. Nadal had not played well the entire tournament, and had seemed unusually agitated on the court while defeating qualifier Frederico Gil of Portugal (7-5, 6-3), and Stanislas Wawrinka (7-6 (2), 7-6 (4). He was well below par in those contests. Against Del Potro, Nadal dropped the first set and went down a break at 2-1 in the second. Then he stormed back to win nine of the next ten games, winning the second set, leading 3-0 in the third.

Inexplicably, Nadal did not push on with any conviction once he had the two break lead in the third. He lost 12 of the next 14 points and dropped serve twice. At 3-0, he won only one point on serve as Del Potro blasted two winners and the Spaniard made two unforced errors. At 3-2, he again won only one point on his serve, making three straight unprovoked mistakes on his way to 0-40. In the end, Nadal still nearly stole the match back, saving three match points at 5-6 in the final set, two of them with aces. But from 3-2 and a mini-break up in the final set tie-break, he never won another point.

Nadal was plainly out of sorts during this tournament, but will surely have time to regroup for the upcoming clay court season. I don't expect him to let this loss linger. He will be even more motivated for the clay court campaign. As for Del Potro, it was the biggest win of his career and his first over a top three player, but he was brought down to earth rather quickly by his next opponent. 

Murray picked Del Potro apart meticulously in the opening set and never allowed the big hitting Argentine to settle into any kind of rhythm. Murray broke him down with his customary variety off the ground and superb placement on serve. He made his 6'6” adversary bend, stretch and scramble continuously, and gave away nothing in the opening set.

Had Murray not suffered a sudden lapse at the start of the second, he might well have won that contest in straight sets. But from 40-0 up at 0-1 in the second set, he lost his serve with consecutive double faults on the last two points. Although he recouped to 2-2, he was always serving from behind and Del Potro found some sweet timing off the ground. Del Potro started rushing Murray out of rallies, and his combination of aggression and ball control was overwhelming. At 5-6 in the second, Murray cracked, losing his serve at love.

The younger Murray would have been flustered and infuriated by the loss of that second set, but not the Murray who steps on the court these days. In the final set, he conceded only one point in four concentrated service games, and responded well under pressure. Murray broke Del Potro for 3-2, held easily for 4-2 and then reached break point for 5-2. He made Del Potro stretch exceedingly low for a backhand volley, and Del Potro elected to take an injury/medical timeout.

That is a rule I wish would be revisited. I don't believe Del Potro was deliberately using gamesmanship by stalling at such a critical stage of the match, but the wait must have seemed eternal for Murray, who was so close to sealing a victory. Del Potro had his upper leg rubbed by the trainer, returned to the court, and promptly saved his third break point of that game with a winning volley. Murray, however, was entirely composed. He took his backhand return early on the next point and drove it inside-out for a winner, and then broke Del Potro with some excellent defending. He confidently served out the match at love.

In the final, Murray was almost letter perfect at the outset, while a terribly uncertain Djokovic made a rash of unprovoked mistakes and displayed little or no feel for the ball. Murray coasted to 4-0, winning 16 of 20 points in the process, returning serve sharply and effectively, connecting on eight of nine first serves without losing a point on his delivery. Djokovic was missing wildly, most surprisingly off his more dependable backhand side. But the Serbian managed to hold twice at the end of the set, saving a set point at 1-5 with a first serve to the backhand that Murray could not get back in play.

Nevertheless, when Murray broke in the opening game of the second set, he seemed certain to run out the match comfortably. Djokovic called for the trainer as he changed sides of the court, complaining that he could not move. But he immediately began asserting himself, and his footwork and stroke execution improved immensely. With Murray surprisingly committing three unforced errors, Djokovic broke back for 1-1, held on for 2-1, and then broke Murray again as the British competitor made three more forehand unforced errors and one off the backhand.

Djokovic was buoyed by his brighter prospects, and Murray looked as if the heat was cutting deeply into his authority. At 3-1, Djokovic put something extra on his second serve kicker at break point down, and Murray drove a return long. Djokovic--- who had started to employ this tactic with moderate success earlier--- played serve-and-volley at game point and easily punched a backhand first volley down the line, catching Murray off guard to win that point and move ahead 4-1.

Djokovic was controlling the rallies now, exploiting his crackling inside-out forehand far more skillfully and accurately, keeping Murray back on his heels. Meanwhile, Murray largely stopped going for big first serves and those with less velocity did not bother a briefly encouraged Djokovic in the least. Djokovic very nearly pulled away in that set. With Murray serving at 1-4, the 21-year-old Serbian had a break point, but Murray reached back and cracked a 127MPH ace. Murray saved a second break point with a trademark two-handed backhand down the line winner off Djokovic's return.

After five deuces, Murray held on for 2-4, but Djokovic remained in command, holding to 5-2. It was from this moment on that Murray demonstrated his growing capacity to compete at the highest levels of the game, battling out of deep adversity and regaining the initiative against a formidable adversary. At 2-5, he held at love, and he ran Djokovic ragged in that game on a couple of points. Not only had he held easily, but he had taken air right out of Djokovic's lungs at a crucial moment.

Still, Djokovic was determined to make it back to one set all. Serving for the second set at 5-3, he reached set point at 40-30, only to be stymied by a scorching flat backhand return crosscourt off the racket of Murray. Although Djokovic played a terrific serve-and-volley combination and made a brilliant low forehand first volley to earn a second set point, Murray was inside his head again. After Djokovic missed the first serve, he surely was still thinking about Murray's big backhand return on the previous advantage court point, so he went down the T with the second delivery. It was a double fault born of pressure applied by his opponent. Murray reached break point, and Djokovic released yet another blazing inside-out forehand.

The shot was called wide, but Djokovic challenged. The replay revealed that the ball was out by a whisker. Murray screamed in jubilation and relief, knowing in his heart that he was going to win this match, realizing he was awfully close to winning tournament. At 4-5, Murray sent out three aces, including a second serve ace down the T at 40-30. With Djokovic wilting again, the outcome was no longer in doubt. Murray swept eight of the last nine points for a 6-2, 7-5 victory.

For Murray, this was a third consecutive victory over a player who had beaten him four times in a row without a defeat before last summer. More significantly, it was confirmation that Murray is indisputably at least the third best player in the world, and might well be the second best. It will only be a matter of time until Murray officially passes Djokovic on the ATP computer, and Federer has some big points to protect in the months ahead including final round showings at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, plus a U.S. Open title run. All that remains for Murray to prove is his big occasion prowess and opportunism, which I firmly believe he will do by the end of summer in New York.

As for Federer, his loss to Djokovic was yet another bruising defeat for a proud man who has seen a world he once ruled with automatic ease and comfort turned into a place where he no longer controls the climate. Before we get to the Djokovic match and Federer's distressing performance, let's remember that coming into the U.S. Open in 2008, he had captured only two small tournaments---- Estoril on clay and Halle on grass--- all season. He surely believed with his triumph at the Open that he was on his way back to his winning ways.

But after the Open, he did not fare all that well. He won Basle in front of his home country's Swiss fans, but lost to Murray indoors in the semifinals of Madrid and defaulted a match for the first time in his career against James Blake in the quarterfinals of Paris with a back injury. He returned to play the year-end ATP Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai. But with the back still bothering him, he lost to Gilles Simon and Murray in round robin matches and did not qualify for the semifinals.

Federer returned after the off season, lost to Murray in the semifinals of his first 2009 event in Doha, suffered a five set loss to Nadal at the Australian Open (his third consecutive defeat against the Spaniard over an eight month span on three different surfaces at the majors), and then took more time off, saying he needed more rehabilitation on his back. At Indian Wells, Murray beat him for the fourth time in a row in the semifinals. He was losing to the best players in his business, but that was not much of a consolation for Federer.

In his match with Djokovic, both players were forced to cope with harrowing conditions as a fierce wind blew across the stadium in Miami. And yet, Federer was able to exploit a nervous start from Djokovic, who has lost so much of his swagger as of late. Federer charged to 5-1, handling the wind well and allowing Djokovic to self destruct. Had he served out the set in the sixth game and won it 6-1, the match might have unfolded differently. But Federer played a relatively sloppy game and soon Djokovic had closed the gap to 5-3. He even had Federer down 15-30 when the Swiss served for the set a second time in the ninth game.

Djokovic sunk his teeth into the contest. He surged to 3-0 in the second set before Federer collected two games in a row. At 2-3--- in the single most significant game of the match---- Federer fell behind 0-40 but recovered to deuce with a pair of penetrating first serves. Djokovic earned a fourth break point but Federer used a clever sliced backhand to elicit an error from the Serbian. An ace took Federer to game point. He tried to surprise Djokovic by serving-and-volleying but it backfired as the Serbian put the return at Federer's feet and forced the world No. 2 into a half volley error.

Federer now unraveled. He dropped that game with two straight forehand unforced mistakes, and his confidence absolutely evaporated. From 4-2 in the second until 3-0 in the third, Djokovic swept 20 0f 24 points as Federer's forehand fell into utter disrepair. He tried measuring it more, going for higher trajectory topspin, playing in a safer margin further from the lines. It all failed. Altogether, Djokovic won seven games in a row to reach 4-0 in that final set, smartly directing most of his shots deep down the middle to Federer's ailing forehand.

Amidst this remarkable period of deterioration, Federer smashed his racket and broke it on the court. The crowd booed at first but then offered him their unabashed support and enthusiasm. Djokovic tightened briefly when he served at 4-0, 30-30, double faulting and then losing that game. Federer closed the gap to 4-2. He was now down only one service break, but Djokovic held at love for 5-2 and allowed Federer only one point as he served out the match at 5-3. Djokovic came away a 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 winner, beating Federer for the third time in ten meetings, overcoming his rival for the first time since their Australian Open semifinal in 2008.Many observers believe this the worst match Federer has ever played, but I am not so sure about that. His 6-3, 6-2 drubbing by Mardy Fish at Indian Wells in 2008 was perhaps the lowest point for this champion.

The signs of Federer's continuing vulnerability in 2009 were already evident when he met Andy Roddick in the quarters of Miami. Federer took the first set of that battle 6-3 with two service breaks against the game's premier server. In the second set, Roddick was down 1-2, 0-40. A break there would surely have allowed Federer to run away with the match. But Roddick held on and then at 3-3 he turned the tables on Federer again. Federer led 40-0 in that seventh game but was broken, double faulting on break point off the net cord wide.

Roddick was soaring as the crowd fervently got behind him. He did not lose a point in his first three service games of the final set and then had Federer at 3-3, 15-40. Federer had made three flagrant forehand unforced errors to put himself in that position. He then made a brilliant winner off that side to save one break point, and escaped on the next when his approach shot down the middle clipped the net cord and landed a foot inside the baseline. Roddick had no play; Federer closed in tight for an elegant forehand drop volley winner, and went on to win not very convincingly 6-3, 4-6, 6-4.

A year ago, Federer had a very similar start to the year and had not won a tournament as he headed into the European clay. He did well on the dirt, winning Estoril, losing the finals of Monte Carlo, Hamburg and Roland Garros to Nadal. The only other player to beat Federer on the clay was Radek Stepanek in Rome. To be sure, for the past four years, only Nadal has been a better clay court player, and Federer's results have been admirably consistent. But there can be no doubt that his challenge this time will be more daunting to match what he has done across the years on the clay, and to make it to a fourth straight French Open final.

He has played impressively in spurts this year, but it does not seem to last. His level of play against Nadal for the first four sets of the Australian Open final was excellent, but in the fifth he lost his edge and could not recover. He had already taken the first set from Murray in Doha, only to drop the next two sets 6-2, 6-2. And after winning the second set from Murray at Indian Wells with authority, he was dismal in dropping the final set 6-1.

He reemerged from some similarly dismal stretches a year ago and managed to get a major title. He does not turn 28 until August. But these next three Grand Slam events are going to be awfully revealing in assessing the future of Federer. Nadal will be the prohibitive favorite at Roland Garros, and Federer will have his work cut out for him to fend off others in Paris. Perhaps he will feel less of a burden at Wimbledon since his five year streak came to an end last year, but how would he respond to combating Murray in the semifinals on Centre Court, or taking on Nadal in a fourth straight Centre Court final? He is still highly if not supremely confident on the grass, but his path at the end could be tougher than ever. He will then be going for a sixth consecutive U.S. Open crown. The bottom line is that securing any of these titles will be a tall order for the Swiss maestro.

In any event, the women had a good tournament in Miami as well. I have been highly impressed with Victoria Azarenka for a long while, waiting for her to achieve something of lasting value. Now she has done that. To be sure, she was not required to play all that well in the final against world No. 1 Serena Williams. Serena had been limping and hobbling around in the latter stages of her semifinal against her sister Venus, and she came on court for her final with Azarenka with her left thigh heavily bandaged.

Her mobility was severely restricted, and she did not look comfortable at any time in the match. The fact remains that Azarenka was first rate, hitting through the court beautifully with her relatively flat ground strokes, particularly the forehand. During most of the rallies, she drove her strokes forcefully with great depth and pace, but did not go for sharp angles with any regularity. To be sure, Serena was terribly handicapped, and clearly did not want to default on such an important occasion. But she surely knew she wasn't going to win against a player of Azarenka's stature without being close to 100%.

The two players exchanged breaks in the third and fourth games of the match, but thereafter Azarenka took over. From 2-2 in the opening set, she took 10 of the last 12 games. The result of this contest made ironic sense. At the Australian Open---- on her way to capturing that title for the fourth time--- Serena was thoroughly outplayed from the back of the court by Azarenka. Azarenka was dictating, thumping her returns, refusing to allow Serena the opportunity to do much more than react.

But Azarenka was not feeling well. After trailing 4-2 in the second set, suffering from dizziness, she was forced to retire. So that was not a fair test in the end, since Azarenka was so compromised. And this latest skirmish in Miami was marred by Serena's hampered condition. I look forward to their next couple of meetings, with both players simultaneously at full strength. They could develop an intriguing and respectful rivalry. Meanwhile, both Azarenka and Williams had some anxious moments before they arrived for the final.

Let's start with Serena. In the round of 16 against Jie Zheng (the No. 17 seed), Serena kept visiting the extremes of her game before finally recording a victory she deserved. Williams led 5-0 in the first set, lost five games in a row, and then took the next two games for the set. She led 5-4 in the second set but dropped five games in a row again, drifting to 0-2, 15-40 in the third set. Finally, she came out of that bind and won six of the last seven games for a 7-5, 5-7, 6-3 win. Then she looked almost disinterested and in incredibly sluggish in the quarterfinals against Li Na.

Serena was down 5-0 in the first set, took four games in a row, but lost the set. In the second set, she escaped 7-1 in a tie-break, and then came through 4-6, 7-6 (1), 6-2. That set up her 20th career appointment against Venus Williams. Serena had to work hard to make it 10-10 in her series against her older sister. Serena served for the first set at 5-3 but double faulted wildly to 15-40 and got broken. A brilliant forehand return winner on her third set point enabled Serena to break Venus for the set in the following game.

Venus Williams outplayed Serena in the second set, but Serena's more versatile court craft lifted her to a 4-1, 40-30 third set lead, but she lost that game carelessly and Venus held on for 3-4 as Serena's limping became apparent. Nevertheless, Serena promptly held for 5-3 at love and broke one more time to complete a 6-4,3-6, 6-3 win. Only in the final set did see both players near their best, but it was essentially not one of their better confrontations. It was littered by too many bad patches from both competitors.

As for Azarenka, she rolled into the semifinals without losing a set, but then took on Svetlana Kuznetsova, a player who held a 3-0 career edge over the 19-year-old from Belarus. This time around, they split sets before Azarenka got the early break in the third. Azarenka served for the match at 5-4 and reached match point but she hit a short ball that Kuznetsova devoured off the forehand. Azarenka double faulted that game away, but got back to work diligently at 5-5. She broke Kuznetsova at 15 as the Russian's two-hander fell apart.

Serving for the match at 6-5, Azarenka got to 40-15 but Kuznetsova saved the first of those match points with an unstoppable forehand, and wiped away the second with a clean winner off the backhand. Azarenka was not unduly worried. She made it to match point again on a sliced backhand error from Kuznetsova, and then the Russian netted one last backhand. Match to Azarenka 6-3, 2-6, 7-5. She had earned her right to meet and exploit a disadvantaged Serena.

Murray has earned the right to be taken very seriously by all of his rivals and the game's closest followers. He has yet to fully master the clay court game, although he will surely make strides on that surface this year. But he has set the stage for an exhilarating summer, and I am looking forward to watching him compete against the premier competitors in his sport on the grass at Wimbledon and the hard courts in New York, places where Andy Murray knows the largest of his dreams could be realized.

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