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Steve Flink: Murray is the King at Queen's

6/15/2009 12:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

This much seems certain about Andy Murray as he approaches the Wimbledon fortnight: he is right where he wants to be. Murray enjoyed an excellent week on the grass at the Queen’s Club, capturing the AEGON Championships by sweeping five matches without the loss of a set. Over the course of the week, he lost his serve only twice in ten sets. He seemed to adapt exceedingly well to being back on the lawns after a long stretch on the clay, and he could hardly have asked more of himself as he prepared for the most important tournament in the game of tennis.                

In the final at Queen’s, Murray was too quick, cunning, and versatile for James Blake, striking down the 29-year-old American 7-5, 6-4 to garner the title. To be sure, the 22-year-old British No. 1 was not at his very best, but he played some masterful percentage tennis, and when it was essential he elevated his game admirably. In the opening set, Murray got the early break for 2-1. On break point in the third game, he used a short, low sliced backhand down the line to provoke Blake into an error off the forehand. I thought Murray should have taken control of the match right then and there, but he suffered a baffling lapse.                

In the fourth game, Murray made three unforced errors off his more vulnerable forehand side, and then Blake unleashed a blazing forehand down the line winner. The American was back to 2-2, and he fully exploited the potency and depth of his forehand for rest of the set. In turn, his crosscourt backhand held up remarkably well. Blake served a couple of love games in a row on his way to a 4-3 lead, and then he pressed Murray hard again in the eighth game. Serving at 3-4, 30-30, Murray responded with customary focus and determination. He drove a two-handed with good depth crosscourt. Blake tried changing directions with a backhand down the line, but he missed. Murray held on for 4-4 with a first serve deep to the backhand that Blake could not handle.                

Blake played a terrific game to hold his serve in the ninth game, and now Murray was under duress as he served at 4-5. A double fault put Murray behind 15-30, two points away from dropping the first set. But he demonstrated his stature and composure to win three points in a row for 5-5. A magnificent first serve down the T that Blake could barely touch made it 30-30. Then Blake drilled a forceful return that would have stifled a lesser man, but Murray was up to the difficult task. He managed to direct a fine defensive shot to Blake’s backhand, and the American missed as he went down the line. Now, at 40-30, Murray showcased his wonderful agility, chasing down a Blake drop shot and answering with a superbly crafted sidespin backhand drop shot winner of his own. It was 5-5.                

Murray--- as is so often the case--- was displaying his finest colors when the stakes were highest. At 5-5, he reached 15-40 with a trademark backhand down the line eliciting a forehand mistake from Blake. On the following point, Murray broke as Blake drove a forehand down the line long. Serving for the set at 6-5, Murray commenced that significant game with an ace wide to the forehand and he went on to hold at 15.                

On a run of three consecutive games, the first set belonged to Murray. The second set was locked at 3-3, but Murray went assiduously to work. With Blake serving at 30-30, Murray laced a dipping backhand pass crosscourt to lure Blake into an error on a low volley. At break point, Murray sent a low backhand chip return at a sharp angle crosscourt, forcing Blake to come forward. Blake had to direct his approach shot down the line over the highest part of the net, and he was not up to the task. Murray had the break for 4-3. He held easily at 15 for 5-3, and then demonstrated his match playing prowess for the final time as he served for the match at 5-4.                

Murray began that game with two aces in a row, and held at love to finish off an impressive straight set triumph. And so Murray has become the first British man to rule on the Queen’s Club grass since Bunny Austin in 1938, and that is a considerable feat. Undoubtedly, Murray had some good fortune to back up his sparkling play. Defending champion Rafael Nadal had to pull out of the event to deal with his ailing knees, and Andy Roddick injured his ankle during a semifinal contest with Blake, retiring at 4-4 in the first set to contain the damage. Roddick seemed confident that he would be ready for Wimbledon.                

Murray must be eagerly anticipating Wimbledon. He had come into this 2009 season hoping and believing that he would be ready to collect a first major title. At the Australian Open, he was overcome in a five set skirmish with an unwavering Fernando Verdasco in the round of 16. He had opened his 2009 season by winning an exhibition event and then capturing an official ATP World Tour title in Doha. Many authorities had predicted that he would be the victor in Melbourne, so that loss must have stung hard.                

Thereafter, Murray played top of the line tennis right up until the clay court season. He won Rotterdam indoors, reached the final on the hard courts of Indian Wells, and then triumphed in Miami. His progress was temporarily stalled on the clay, although he reached the semifinals of Monte Carlo and the quarters in Madrid. At the French Open, after Nadal was stunned in the round of 16 by Robin Soderling, Murray looked fully capable of at least reaching the final. But he played a disappointing tactical match against Fernando Gonzalez, and lost to the Chilean in a four set quarterfinal.                

So Murray has not achieved what he wanted in the last two majors after reaching the final of the 2008 U.S. Open. I believe he has put all of that behind him, and he has boosted his morale by winning Queen’s. Murray will be afforded vociferous and unwavering crowd support when he returns to the All England Club, and he is surely one of the top three candidates to win Wimbledon this year. Roger Federer--- who wisely pulled out of the Halle, Germany grass court event to rest after his long awaited French Open victory--- will be the favorite to prevail on the Centre Court again.                

Federer, of course, tied Bjorn Borg’s modern record by securing the crown five years in a row from 2003-2007. Last year, he lost what was almost certainly the greatest match of all time to Nadal in the final, bowing 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 in four hours and 48 minutes of sublime tennis. Federer could have lost in straight sets, probably should have been beaten in four (Nadal served with a 5-2 tie-break lead in that set and had two match points later in that improbable sequence) and then nearly pulled off an astonishing comeback, coming within two points of victory before losing the fifth set.                

Federer will inevitably be soaring emotionally after his Roland Garros triumph, and he is clearly the most natural and gifted grass court player in the field. And yet, the fact remains that Nadal in 2008 became the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win Roland Garros and Wimbledon back to back. Shifting from the red clay of Paris to the green grass of Wimbledon, and avoiding some kind of physical or mental letdown along the way, is an awfully difficult challenge. It will be fascinating to see how Federer performs under these circumstances.                

Federer’s long run of success will make him the man to beat this year at Wimbledon. But by no means is he an overwhelming favorite. Nadal has been in the final on the grass for the past three years, losing in a four set clash with Federer in 2006, nearly securing the crown before falling in five sets to Federer in 2007, and then winning the epic battle a year ago over his chief rival. Nadal was riding high coming into the French Open. He already had won the first major of the year at the Australian Open, and had added four more titles on the ATP World Tour to his collection, including Masters 1000 events at Indian Wells, Monte Carlo and Rome.                

Heading into Roland Garros, Nadal seemed certain to won his fifth title in a row. Had he done that and stayed healthy, we would now be speculating about a possible Grand Slam for Nadal in 2009. Instead, he shockingly lost to Robin Soderling in a four set, round of 16 contest, and then went back to Spain and had his knees examined. It is entirely possible that Nadal will not play Wimbledon this year, and he could well need more time to mend his knees.                

But even if he is able to defend his title, Nadal will be very hard pressed to summon what he needs to reach peak efficiency. The loss in Paris was a severe jolt. The knee woes must surely be weighing heavily on his mind. Moreover, his preparation has been terribly compromised. He not only missed Queen’s, but he has also lost valuable practice time on the grass. This man is such an heroic competitor, and is the most indefatigable player I have ever seen, but winning Wimbledon again this year under such extreme circumstances may be asking too much of him.                

And so, in the final analysis, I see Wimbledon coming down to this: either Roger Federer wins a sixth title, or Andy Murray steps forward to claim his first Grand Slam tournament crown. Since Federer took him apart in the U.S. Open final last September, Murray has toppled his formidable rival no less than four times in a row, overcoming the Swiss twice indoors last autumn, beating the 14 time major champion twice outdoors on hard courts this season. He has bested Federer in six of their last seven meetings.                

It must be said that all of those Murray wins were in best of three set matches. Federer is vastly more seasoned as a best of five set competitor, and that might give him an inner security he has lacked in recent showdowns with the world No. 3. The longer format affords Federer more time to reshape his game plan, and forces Murray to exert an inordinate amount of energy as he scrambles and defends so frequently against his adversary. But the atmospherics could be unlike anything Federer has experienced since he established his grass court supremacy for the first time back in 2003. If he does play Murray on the Centre Court, it will have the look and feel of a Davis Cup match. Murray stands to gain immeasurably from that.  

The outcome of a potential Murray-Federer semifinal or final at Wimbledon could well be largely determined by which man serves better, particularly under pressure. The view here is that if these two players clash on the Centre Court, the battle will last for five crackling sets as they test each other comprehensively.  Murray’s first serve is decidedly better than it was a year ago. It is his most under rated weapon. In the end, I can envision Murray winning this Wimbledon by fully exploiting his first serve, by getting an uncanny number of returns back into play, by proving that his speed and footwork can take him anywhere he wants to go. The view here is that Andy Murray will be the Wimbledon champion of 2009.

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