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Steve Flink: Montreal Sends Murray Forward and Brings Everyone Else Back

8/17/2009 12:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

Five weeks had elapsed since the end of Wimbledon. For diehard tennis fans, it must have seemed like an eternity since all of the top players had assembled to test their skills and wills at the same event. But last week in Montreal, they were all there, from Roger Federer to Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray to Novak Djokovic, Andy Roddick to Juan Martin Del Potro, and so on down the line. We knew that this would be an intriguing battleground as the top players began in earnest to gear up for the last major championship of the season at the U.S. Open. The high quality skirmishes that were played out on the hard courts of Canada only made us all the more eager to see what will happen in New York.

In the end, Murray was the most celebratory player of the lot. He came away with his fifth singles title of 2009, a feat equaled only by Nadal. He played top of the line tennis from the beginning of the week right through the end. He displayed that indefatigable fighting spirit to which we have grown accustomed. Moreover, Murray hit a new target of not inconsiderable dimensions, reaching No. 2 in the world for the first time, moving past Nadal to secure that honor. I have conflicted feelings about that accomplishment. Murray has worked assiduously over the last year, and must be admired for becoming the first man other that Federer or Nadal since Lleyton Hewitt in July of 2005 to reside in the top two.

To be sure, Murray’s record across the last 12 months has been superb. But Nadal had lost his No. 1 ranking to Federer after Wimbledon primarily because his damaged knees had contributed to a startling fourth round defeat against Robin Soderling at the French Open, and had prevented him from going back to the All England Club to defend his title on those hallowed lawns. Nadal had been practically in a league of his own as the best player until his world was turned upside down in Paris. He lost a ton of ranking points at Roland Garros, and suffered even more dramatically by not being able to compete at Wimbledon.

No one can take anything away from Federer, who turned a dismal season around by capturing his first French Open and sixth Wimbledon crowns. Nor can any reasonable follower deny that Murray--- despite not appearing in a final at a Grand Slam event since the 2008 U.S. Open--- has been an outstanding week in, week out player and a first rate competitor who has made a steady and well deserved climb up to the elite territory of his sport. I am simply making the point that had Nadal not been sidetracked, he would still stand unequivocally at No. 1 in the world, with Murray battling Federer hard for the No. 2 spot.

Nonetheless, Murray is where he is, and his triumph in Montreal was impressive. He did not lose a set all week until the final, when he had to deal with the ferocity of Juan Martin Del Potro’s ground game and serve. That was no mean feat, because Del Potro was on a gigantic roll after winning Washington and toppling Nadal and Andy Roddick on his way to the championship match in Canada. Murray knew full well that he had his work cut out for him if he wanted to defeat a player who has improved immensely over the course of this season.

It was apparent from the early stages of the final that Del Potro’s only chance to win was in straight sets. The nine matches he had played since the start of Washington had fully caught up with him, and he was up against a warrior who was going to make him work awfully hard from the back of the court. There would be no shortcuts to victory for Del Potro in this clash with the British No. 1. Murray largely outplayed Del Potro throughout the first set, conceding only seven points in six service games, creating a few opportunities to break.

Murray had a break point for 4-2 with a reasonably good opening for a backhand passing shot, but he missed that shot and Del Potro held on. With Del Potro serving at 5-6, Murray was twice two points away from taking the set, but the towering Argentine reached a tie-break by spectacularly rescuing himself during an electrifying exchange. Murray approached confidently, and then played an angled, short high backhand volley crosscourt. Del Potro somehow chased that shot down and flicked a backhand at Murray’s feet. Murray replied with a forehand half volley but Del Potro moved with alacrity to punch away a forehand volley into the clear.

Thus the players moved into the tie-break on a high note, and here they kept raising the stakes over and over again. The level of play was magnificent. Murray opened with a crackling backhand crosscourt winner after Del Potro had stung him hard with a blistering return of serve. Del Potro responded with an ace and a forehand winner set up by another big serve. Murray retaliated with two straight aces for 3-2, but Del Potro’s pace of shot was too much for Murray as he held both of his service points.

The next point was a grueling 23 stroke exchange which Murray won with a gutsy inside-out forehand winner, and so it was 4-4. But Del Potro stepped up boldly when Murray missed his first serve on the following point. He drove his backhand return flat and deep, followed it in, and Murray was not ready for that tactic. He drove a backhand pass wide. Del Potro had the mini-break for 5-4, and there was no stopping him now. He released an ace for 6-4, then came up with another huge first serve that Murray could barely get back. Del Potro moved forward and nailed a forehand winner to take the tie-break 7-4.

Now Del Potro was in with a chance. But Murray got the first service break of the match in the opening game of the second set in a hard fought, four deuce game. Del Potro saved three break points in that game by thwarting his adversary with a barrage of huge shots off both sides. He refused to let Murray get away often with safe, defensive returns down the middle, stepping in and blasting away fearlessly. But on the last break point, he faltered as Murray guided another return back into play. Del Potro drove a two-hander wide.

Murray moved quickly to 30-0 in the next game but did not consolidate his break. He made only four of eight first serves and Del Potro rhythmically broke back for 1-1 with a series of devastatingly potent and accurate ground strokes. Murray would find no real vulnerability off either wing as Del Potro seemed to hit harder and harder without losing control.

And yet, after failing to hold in the second game of the second set, Murray dropped only two points in his next five service games. But Del Potro kept serving his way courageously out of danger, saving a break point in the third game, struggling through tough deuce games to reach 4-3 and 5-4, holding on again from 30-30 at 5-5. When he went to the changeover after that game, Del Potro called for the trainer as he sought help for an ailing shoulder and a weary body. Murray was agitated by being made to wait, but promptly held at love to reach the crucial second set tie-break.

Both players knew how much was riding on the outcome of this sequence; either Del Potro would prevail and hang on to win the tournament, or Murray would push the match into a third set and have a chance to demonstrate his vastly superior fitness level. Murray served with a 4-2 lead but Del Potro stepped up the pace once more, crushing a penetrating forehand crosscourt that put Murray on the defensive. Then Del Potro moved forward to connect with a forehand down the line winner. It was 3-4 and Del Potro was serving. He advanced to the net, but Murray put up an excellent lob that Del Potro could not dispatch. Murray won that point for a 5-3 lead when Del Potro netted a two-hander.

Murray collected the next two points for a 7-3 tie-break triumph, and Del Potro left the court for a bathroom break, returning with the trainer. But he was almost completely spent. He could not use his legs in customary fashion to launch his huge first serve. He was spraying his ground strokes recklessly beyond the lines. He stopped chasing down balls as he had for nearly two hours and twenty minutes. Murray methodically took him apart, winning 16 of 18 points on his way to 4-0. Briefly, Del Potro found a surge of energy to break Murray in the fifth game, but it did not last. Murray ran out the match 6-7 (4), 7-6 (3), 6-1.

That contest was a stark reminder for Del Potro that he has to get in much better shape. His problems were not entirely his fault; the accumulation of matches over the past fortnight would have tested anyone. But he must be concerned about how durable he will be in the heat at the U.S. Open when the matches shift to best of five sets. A compensating factor in New York--- as in all the Grand Slam events--- is the day off between matches, although there is no day off between the semifinals and final at the Open. Del Potro held up well in Paris when he reached the semifinals and built a two sets to one lead against Federer without losing his serve.

And yet, even then, he faded badly in the fourth set against the eventual champion. Del Potro regrouped to break back for 3-3 in the fifth in that contest with Federer, and rallied from 0-40 on his serve back to deuce in the pivotal seventh game. But then he gave that game away on a double fault, and the rest was a formality. In any case, Del Potro needs to address his physical vulnerabilities. He is not yet 21, and should be better prepared for long matches. But that liability is balanced by the vast strides he is making as a tennis player.

No longer is Del Potro simply a gifted shot maker who can shine on his best days but too easily self destruct on his worst. This was entirely clear during his victories over Nadal and Roddick in Montreal. The Nadal-Del Potro match was terrific for a set. Nadal had played his first match since losing to Soderling at Roland Garros when he took on countryman David Ferrer in his opening round assignment in Montreal.

Ironically, Ferrer retired with a knee injury of his own at 4-3 down in the opening set of that match, so it was hard to judge Nadal’s level then. He next took apart Peter Petzschner easily in straight sets to reach the quarterfinals. That 6-3, 6-2 win was impressive in light of Petzschner’s victories over Sam Querrey and Tommy Robredo earlier in the week. But Nadal had to move up to an entirely different and higher level when he met the surging Del Potro under the lights. When they had last played in the quarters of Miami on hard courts, Del Potro had rallied mightily from two breaks down at 0-3 in the final set to oust Nadal for the first time.

That was a significant upset at the time. But on this occasion, Del Potro had to be favored over the just returning Nadal. In the opening set, both men played brilliantly from the baseline, and it could have gone either way. Nadal escaped from 15-40 down at 3-4 as Del Potro missed on both break points off the forehand. At 4-5, the Spaniard saved a set point on serve, winning an exacting 22 stroke exchange with outstanding defense. Nadal’s one serious opportunity came at 5-5, when he had a break point of his own, which a confident and composed Del Potro promptly erased by taking a short ball from his opponent and drilling a clean winner off the backhand.

They went into a tie-break, and Del Potro was in a bind, serving at 2-5. Nadal approached the net off the forehand, and seemed in a commanding position, only to be confounded by an astonishing topspin lob from Del Potro. Nadal scampered back but could not handle that shot. The Spaniard then missed a backhand return to make it 5-4, was off the mark with an inside-out forehand for 5-5. Del Potro was now brimming with optimism. He stormed forward behind a flat backhand approach crosscourt to put away a forehand swing volley, and then finished off matters with an ace.

Del Potro had taken the tie-break right out of Nadal’s hands with five points in a row. He then romped in the second, blowing Nadal off the court with his depth, power, and unerring backcourt execution.  Furthermore, Del Potro made good on 75% of his first serves for the match. He won 7-6 (5), 6-1, but the score is misleading. Nadal did not play badly in the second set. He lost some confidence after the tie-break did not go his way, but I believe he would have probably won the match had he closed out the first set. The best news of all for Nadal boosters was how well he moved throughout that loss, and his running forehand was excellent. He should be encouraged by his showing in Montreal.

As for Federer, he must be perplexed. In his first tournament back since Wimbledon and his first event as a father, he reached the quarters and took on Jo Wilfried Tsonga. Put this one down as the most bizarre match of Federer’s career. At 4-4 in the first set, Federer had a break point, and should have made a forehand down the line passing shot with Tsonga in a desperate plight, but the Swiss drove that shot long. Tsonga held on and reached a tie-break. On his third set point at 6-5 in that sequence, Tsonga dove for a backhand volley, and was trying to get up and recover as Federer distractedly missed a backhand passing shot into the net.

But Tsonga seemed to have jarred his wrist when he fell. He lost all of his early match zest, and Federer marched on with automatic precision, taking the second set 6-1, moving ahead 5-1 in the final set. Suddenly, Tsonga recovered his energy, passion, and panache. He took the next five games in a dramatic reversal, attacking judiciously, finding a way to get his error prone ground game back under control, taking advantage of Federer’s increasingly vulnerable backhand.

Tsonga looked certain to run out the match when he drove a two-handed backhand passing shot for a winner to reach 0-40 with a shell-shocked Federer serving at 5-6 in that startling final set. Tsonga had won 23 of the previous 29 points to reach triple match point. But Federer held his composure. At 5-6, 0-40, he served-and-volleyed, and dug out a forehand half volley. Tsonga pressed, missing the backhand pass wide. On the second match point, Tsonga missed a backhand return off a second serve, and on the third Federer saved himself with a remarkable low forehand volley as Tsonga netted another passing shot attempt.

When Federer served his way out of that game and into another tie-break, his chances looked remarkably good. But Tsonga found one last burst of inspiration to pull off one of his biggest career victories. At 2-2 in the tie-break, he aced Federer down the T. After Federer got back to 3-3, Tsonga ran around his backhand and walloped his forehand down the line. Federer was not fully ready for that kind of pace, and drove his forehand long. It was 4-3 for Tsonga. Tsonga then produced a big first serve, got a short return from Federer, and cracked another forehand winner.

Now two points from the win, Tsonga aced Federer down the T again to reach triple match point for the second time. Federer double faulted, and Tsonga had won 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (3). It was not the start Federer wanted to his summer campaign in preparation for a run at a sixth straight U.S. Open title. In the two tie-breaks combined, Federer was under 20% on first serves (2 for 11). He has let some significant leads get away recently, including his semifinal losing contest with Novak Djokovic in Rome when he led by a set and a break, and was later ahead 3-1 in the third and final set. He lost to Marat Safin at the 2005 Australian Open after having a match point. But this was the biggest lead I have ever seen him blow since he started winning majors in 2003.

Meanwhile, Roddick suffered a third consecutive frustrating defeat. It began with his agonizing defeat against Federer in the final of Wimbledon, when he bowed out so gallantly 16-14 in the fifth set. His next tournament was Washington, when he had opportunities to beat Juan Martin Del Potro. In that final, Roddick won the first set, went down a break in the second, broke back, but lost his serve inexplicably at 5-6. In the third and final set, he moved to 3-1 but did not put the clamps down and lost in a final set tie-break.

In Montreal, Roddick had another productive week. He edged Fernando Verdasco in a pulsating contest, despite some surprising lapses. Roddick took the first set in a tie-break, but lost his serve inconveniently at 4-5 in the second. In the final set, Roddick broke Verdasco at 5-5 for the first time, served for the match at 6-5, and went to 40-15. Verdasco caught the American in his tracks with a backhand crosscourt winner to save the first match point. On the second, Roddick unluckily broke a string, which forced him to come in on his next shot. He understandably sliced a backhand approach long.

Verdasco broke back to force a tie-break, took a 2-0 lead, but Roddick battled gamely and purposefully. Serving at 4-5, he bailed himself out with an unstoppable first serve to the backhand, followed by a service winner to the forehand. Verdasco then served at 5-6, giving Roddick a third match point. This time, Roddick came through, winning an absorbing 21 stroke exchange for a clutch victory.

In the quarterfinals, Roddick got past Novak Djokovic for the third consecutive time in straight sets. He won the first set cleanly on one break, but Djokovic led 3-1,40-30 in the second set. Djokovic appeared to have held for 4-1 when Roddick hit a deep crosscourt forehand close to the baseline, but the Serbian sportingly waved his racket at Roddick, urging him to challenge. Roddick won the challenge, came back to break, and closed out the match in a second set tie-break. In that sequence, Djokovic double faulted the first point away and did it again at 4-4. Djokovic was much too timid in that match. He needed to be much more aggressive off the ground, take more chances, and look for more opportunities to flatten out his strokes.

Instead, he played into Roddick’s hands, and the American was too good. So Roddick came into his semifinal with Del Potro playing good tennis. He then got the only break of the opening set with Del Potro serving at 4-5 to move ahead. Roddick was strategically sound, changing pace off the ground adroitly, serving with discipline and deception. And then he played an abysmal game to lose his serve in the opening game of the second set at love. He missed three out of four first serves, did not bear down, and immediately gave away the initiative. It was a terrible time to play a bad game.

Del Potro raced to 4-0 in that set, and finished it off commandingly 6-2 with his 13th ace. But Roddick had the advantage of serving first in the final set, and he found his rhythm again. At 4-4, he had one of his best serving games of the match, holding at love, opening and closing with aces. Del Potro served at 4-5, and went down match point at 30-40. He connected with a forceful yet not overwhelming first serve. Roddick looked as if he had a play, but his forehand return went wide. Del Potro held with his 19th ace for 5-5.

At 5-5, Roddick imploded. He made three glaring forehand unforced errors, and then, at 30-40, double faulted into the net. He smashed his racket on the court, and Del Potro predictably served out the match to win 4-6, 6-2,7-5.  Through most of 2009, Roddick’s demeanor has been relatively calm, and that has been to his advantage. But in this duel with Del Potro, he unraveled to some degree, bickering with the umpire at changeovers, losing his cool on the court. The hope here is that he will get back to his calmer ways again as he heads toward the U.S. Open.

All in all, it was a great week of tennis in Montreal. Nadal made some important progress by playing three matches, and there were no signs that his knees were acting up. Despite his setback, Roddick had another good tournament. Del Potro built on his Washington triumph and took his big hitting game to a level he has never reached before; he also served prodigiously, and demonstrated that when he is on he can beat anyone in the world. But when all was said and done, Andy Murray walked away with the top honor, giving himself a substantial dose of confidence as he approaches the U.S. Open, reminding his colleagues just how good he is, setting the stage for some larger achievements in the not too distant future.

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