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Steve Flink: Murray's premature exit leaves questions for 2010

9/9/2009 12:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

FLUSHING MEADOWS--    Watching Andy Murray as he was obliterated in straight sets yesterday by Marin Cilic, it was hard not to commiserate with him. The leading players can so easily be crippled by the burden of large expectations, and so it was with the British competitor on this occasion. A year ago, he was in the process of breaking into the top five in the world. He had caught the world’s attention by celebrating a productive summer, winning Cincinnati, reaching the semifinals of Toronto. But few observers in the know genuinely believed that he could win the U.S. Open. He was in that ideal place, improving his game and enjoying what he was doing, leaving most of the attention to Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

When Murray made it to the 2008 U.S. Open final by toppling Nadal in the penultimate round, he altered his outlook, and the media and his colleagues changed the way they looked at him. It was apparent by the end of 2008--- when he stood at No. 4 in the world--- that he was one of those extraordinary players who had a serious chance to garner a first major crown this year. It was apparent that he had the drive and intensity, the mindset and the gumption, the single-minded focus and the professionalism, to claim at least one of the four premier events in 2009. But now his Grand Slam season is over, and the 22-year-old has not realized his dream. His 2009 campaign has been an excellent one in many ways--- he has performed with immense consistency, winning five tournaments, beating all of his primary rivals--- but in the most crucial sense the year has been a failure because he did not come through at a major.

Let’s examine his record at the “Big Four” this year. He came into the Australian Open with a burst of confidence after winning Doha (where he beat Federer), but in Melbourne he was ushered out of the first 2009 major by a top of the line Fernando Verdasco in the round of 16. It was a strange match, and Murray had a two sets to one lead. But Verdasco---- who had moved to a new level and was competing with a purpose and consistency he had never exhibited before--- struck down Murray in the clutch with a superb fifth set performance. After a very good winter and spring featuring a title run at Miami after a final round showing at Indian Wells, Murray took his lumps during the clay court circuit but still reached the semifinals of Monte Carlo and the quarters in Madrid.

At the French Open, he had an unexpectedly good opportunity when Nadal bowed out in the round of 16 against Robin Soderling. Murray erased Cilic in the round of 16 to reach his first quarterfinal at Roland Garros, and the draw looked wide open for Murray to at least reach the final and maybe even win the tournament. But Murray was bludgeoned by the ever dangerous Fernando Gonzalez in the last eight, falling in four sets and not playing terribly well. More importantly, he played one of his worst tactical matches as Gonzo blew him off the court.

At Wimbledon, especially after Nadal withdrew with knee injuries, there was a growing feeling among the players and the media that Murray could put himself in a terrific position to claim his first major at the All England Club, and thus establish himself as the first British man since Fred Perry (1934-36) to rule on the British lawns. He played his way capably into the semifinals, and most insiders believed he would beat Andy Roddick and set up an appointment with Federer, whom he had defeated four times in a row. But Roddick played one of the most thoughtful and persuasive matches of his career, and he upended Murray in four sets. That was surely a distressing development, and yet Murray took it well. When Roddick nearly beat Federer in the final, Murray could at least console himself that he had lost to a tough and seasoned veteran who was performing magnificently. It was clearly no disgrace for Andy Murray to lose to Andy Roddick in a Grand Slam tournament semifinal, particularly on grass.

Casting that disappointment aside, getting back to work on hard courts (his favorite surface), demonstrating  that he was still upbeat about the end of the Grand Slam season and perhaps a new beginning for himself, Murray had a fine summer this year. He won Montreal, reached the semifinals of Cincinnati, and headed into the Open well prepared, quietly confident, feeling good about himself and his game. Murray was never really troubled during the first three rounds, and he took a 3-0 career head to head record into his duel with Cilic in Arthur Ashe Stadium. He had every reason to believe he was going to win that round of 16 clash, and so did we.

Late in the first set, everything was going according to plan. Murray was down break point at 4-4 but he released a second serve ace down the T and went on to hold his serve. Cilic then served at 4-5 and fell behind 15-40. Murray was poised to take that set and seize control of the match. This was a situation where he often thrives. But Cilic was not obliging. He sent out an ace to save the first set point, and then stood up forcefully to Murray in the next rally. Murray inexplicably hit a short ball off the forehand, and Cilic did not hesitate. He came forward with conviction, and Murray realized that his 6’6” adversary was closing in tight on the net. He went for a softly rolled backhand pass crosscourt, but did not come even close to making that shot.

Cilic had escaped from a daunting bind. He held on for 5-5. At 5-5, Murray double faulted to make it 0-40 and lost that game at 15 with an unprovoked mistake off the forehand. When Cilic served for the set at 6-5, he unleashed an ace for 40-30 and then sealed it when Murray netted an ill fated backhand drop shot attempt. Perhaps he suffered a brain cramp, but that was not the time to play that shot. From there on in, Murray could not regroup. Cilic--- serving with astonishing power and accuracy, flattening out his forehand and hitting that shot with great depth, driving his two-hander down the line with pace and precision--- simply entered the zone. From double set point down in that first set, he collected no less than seven games in a row, and captured 15 of the last 19 games to run out the match 7-5, 6-2, 6-2.

So what in the world happened? In my view, Murray would almost surely have recorded a solid victory had he closed out the first set. But, based on history, looking at the fact that Cilic had never advanced beyond the round of 16 at a major, and knowing that he is in excellent condition and is more than capable of battling back from a set down to win, Murray probably thought it was no big deal when he lost the opening set. What he did not bargain for was that Cilic proceeded to play unconsciously well. Across the last two sets, he performed stupendously, unerringly, and brilliantly.

 I have watched Cilic frequently over the last year or two, and have never seen him reach and sustain such a high level. Not only that, but he was strategically on the mark. His instincts were better than Murray’s on this occasion. He simply beat Murray to the punch time and time again with controlled aggression. I particularly enjoyed watching him use the heavy kick serve in the advantage court to elicit short returns from Murray, opening up the court for his confidently struck backhand down the line. I also thought he did an admirable job of preventing Murray from employing the defensive skills he almost always exhibits. To be sure, Cilic played the match of his life, never losing his serve in three sets, fending off seven break points, winning 58% of his second serve points and 38 of 48 first serve points. He could not have asked for more from himself.

The fact remains that Murray was found wanting this time around. Of all his 2009 Grand Slam defeats, this was by far the most decisive and stinging. He did not serve well despite connecting with 65% of his first deliveries. Moreover, his forehand let him down in too many instances, and he did not return with his customary authority or control. For Murray, it was a bad day at the office in the worst of times, with the last Grand Slam championship of 2009 on the line. He had failed to reach the quarterfinals of a major for the second time this year, and that was not good news.

So how deeply will Murray be wounded by this defeat, and can he recover quickly and turn his thoughts positively toward the 2010 season?  I believe he will get over this setback and still acquit himself well across the autumn. Not only that, but I still see him winning a Grand Slam event in 2010. But I was convinced coming into the 2009 season that he would secure one of the majors this year, and it did not happen. In fact, he did not even make it back to a major final in 2009, and that was not the way it should have been. He simply did not find the essential ingredients he needed when it was required at the critical moments.

And yet, he said the right things after his loss to Cilic. “I believe,” he emphasized,” that I’ll come back better from it. I’ll learn a lot from what happened this week, like I’ve done most times when I’ve had bad results. You know, I’ll come back better and stronger… I’ll go sit down with the guys I work with and see what went well this year and what didn’t go well, and work as hard as I can to be ready to win a Slam in Australia. Next year I’ve got a very good chance of doing it at a Slam. I think I’ll be a better player next year than this year.”

That will almost certainly be the case. But the hope here is that he will add some velocity to his game, stop relying quite to the same degree on his remarkable defensive capabilities, start learning to take matters more into his own hands. He has the propensity to shape the course of matches more than he does now, and the ability to finish off points sooner. He could turn his serve into a more consistently potent and dependable weapon. He could beef up his game in any number of ways.

But, even if he travels on that path, and turns himself into a great player in the process, he still must find a way to get more out of himself on the big occasions. He can survive not winning a major in 2009, but if he does not turn the corner in 2010 and get on that big board of success, the task will only get increasingly arduous in the years beyond that.

The burden of large expectations will not disappear next year. I just hope he isn’t crippled by wanting to win so badly when it matters the most.

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