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Steve Flink: Murray restores his conviction

8/16/2010 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

In many ways, the Rogers Cup Masters 1000 event in Toronto could not have concluded in a more fitting manner on Sunday. At the end of January, a wide range of authorities believed Andy Murray was ready to collect his first major title. When the highly charged and immensely ambitious Murray took on Roger Federer in the final of the Australian Open at Melbourne, he seemed primed to claim that title and place himself among the elite achievers in his sport by breaking through at a major. Murray captured six titles overall on the 2009 ATP World Tour, securing more tournament wins than anyone in men’s tennis, and now the stage was apparently set for him to take a substantial step.

That was not the case. Federer played one of his finest matches of the last three seasons, and Murray performed largely like a tormented figure, playing as if the burden of expectations was more than he could handle. He was soundly beaten in straight sets by Federer, and he felt the weight of that defeat for many months to come. Not until Wimbledon did Murray start playing anywhere near as well as he can, reaching the semifinals of the world’s premier event, bowing against Nadal in a high quality contest. He then reached the final of Los Angeles in his debut on the 2010 Olympus U.S. Open Series, but on that occasion Murray squandered a match point and lost a bruising appointment with an opportunistic Sam Querrey. He was on his way back to the top of his game, but Murray was not quite there yet.

In Toronto, Murray celebrated his best week of 2010, and then some. He captured his first singles championship of the year, defended his title ably, and played his most inspired tennis in a very long while. Murray upended a revitalized David Nalbandian 6-2, 6-2 in the quarterfinals. Nalbandian had won eleven matches in a row, including the tournament in Washington the week before, and had knocked out both David Ferrer and Robin Soderling in Toronto before coming up against Murray. Moreover, Murray halted Nadal 6-3, 6-4 in the semifinals, handing the Spaniard only his second loss in his last seven tournament appearances. Last, and clearly not least, Murray ended a three match losing streak against Federer, beating his Swiss rival for the seventh time in twelve career head-to-head meetings, stopping the Swiss for the first time in a final. Federer had sent Murray into a state of misery after dismantling him in Australia, and now Murray had gained at least a measure of revenge. With the U.S. Open only two weeks away, Murray’s timing for his victory was impeccable.

This Murray-Federer final was played under hard circumstances for both players. They were delayed after warming up by rain, and again several times during the match itself. Competing in those conditions is awfully trying for the players, but they both handled the situation like the thorough professionals they are, and simply got on with their business. Murray was spectacular at the outset. In breaking Federer twice en route to a 3-0 lead, he opened up his wings as he seldom if ever has before, going after his returns at full force, pounding his forehand with masterful pace and depth, setting the tempo with his unswerving aggression and consistency. In the opening game of the match, Murray broke Federer at 15. Federer did not help his cause by missing three out of five first serves, but he must have been ill prepared for what Murray was throwing at him. At 15-15, Murray made an excellent forehand return off a wide serve in the deuce court, setting up a forehand crosscourt winner. On the following point, Federer approached the net effectively, but Murray produced a superb defensive lob off the backhand that forced his opponent to retreat. Federer eventually was off the mark with a sliced backhand. Now at double break point, Murray exploited his often underused backhand down the line, nailing two in a row off that side, forcing Federer into an errant forehand.

Murray was off and running. He was on target with five straight first serves in the second game, holding at 15 with a wide delivery to the forehand that was unmanageable for Federer. Murray was soaring.  Although Federer made good on five of six first serves in the third game, he still could not hold. Murray hit two outright winners in that game, returned ferociously, and put himself in a commanding position. Had he played a better game when he served at 3-0, he might have swept through that set, but that was not the case. Murray opened the fourth game with a double fault, followed by an unforced error off the backhand. Federer pounced, unleashing a sparkling topspin backhand down the line that Murray could not answer, then surging forward to make a point winning overhead.

Federer had broken at love, and then held at 15. But Murray still was in good shape. He held relatively easily to reach 4-2, and played a solid game to make it to 5-3. Federer was down 0-30 in the ninth game and two points from losing the set, but he served his way boldly out of that corner. The time had come for Murray to serve for the set. The critical first point of that game was costly for the 23-year-old from Scotland. He opened up the court with a wide serve to Federer’s forehand, but played his forehand approach tamely. Federer effortlessly rolled a backhand pass up the line for a winner. Murray connected with only two of five first serves, made two costly unforced errors, and then double faulted that game away. Federer had somehow fought back to 5-5.

Yet Murray was still striking his returns magnificently. He got to 15-40 in the eleventh game, but Federer then aced him down the T in the deuce court. At 30-40, Federer laced an exquisite topspin backhand down the line that caught Murray off guard, and it was deuce. The Swiss advanced to game point, but inexplicably he tried a pronounced forehand slice from a few feet inside the baseline, netting that shot badly. Given that reprieve, Murray stepped up. He sliced a lob off the backhand over Federer’s head, followed it in and Federer then drove a forehand pass over the baseline. Down break point for the third time in that game, Federer looked to create an angle that wasn’t there, and pulled a forehand crosscourt wide. Murray had broken Federer for the third time in the set.

Given a second opportunity to serve it out, Murray did not waver. At 6-5, 30-15, Murray opened up the court with a well struck two-hander crosscourt, and then moved in confidently for an angled forehand volley winner. Murray held at 15 to close out a set he could not afford to lose. At 1-2, 30-0 for Murray in the second set, rain intruded. When the two players returned about 45 minutes later, Murray quickly held. There were more problems with the weather, but Murray managed to break for 3-2 as a seemingly disgruntled Federer missed on a forehand down the line approach. It was 30-30 in the sixth game when another rain delay occurred, and when play resumed Federer promptly took two points in a row to get back on serve at 3-3.

The sun was finally shining now, and both men were dazzling for the rest of the set. Federer lost only one point on his way to 4-3 with a pair of forehand winners. Murray made four of five first serves in the next game and held convincingly at 15 for 4-4. The best tennis of the match was fully on display. Federer held for 5-4 at the cost of only one point, producing three outright winners, closing that impressive game with one of his patented forehand swing volley winners set up by a strategically placed serve. Murray had to serve to stay in the set, but he handled that challenge with poise, holding at love, demonstrating emphatically to Federer that he was not going to wilt.

At 5-5, Murray swiftly reached 0-40 but Federer fought off two break points. At 30-40, though, Murray sensed his chance. He angled a backhand return sharply crosscourt, then took a short ball from Federer and approached on the forehand of his adversary. Federer had to go down the line and Murray was waiting, making a safe backhand drop volley into an open court. Murray had the break for 6-5, and was serving for the match. At 30-30, Federer caught him off guard with a penetrating forehand down the line return, and thus went to break point. How did Murray respond? He cracked a 137 MPH ace wide to the backhand, followed by a 140 MPH ace down the T in the deuce court. From break point down, Murray had arrived at match point, but he netted a backhand drop shot.

At deuce, Murray stymied Federer with a remarkable play. Murray sent his first serve wide to the forehand, and Federer went down the line with a deep return. At full stretch, Murray angled his two-hander crosscourt to put Federer on the run. Now on the offensive, Murray drove his backhand down the line and Federer netted a running forehand under duress. At match point for the second time, Murray approached on Federer’s forehand, and the Swiss lobbed long. Murray triumphed 7-5, 7-5, ending a ten tournament losing streak to claim his first crown of 2010. As for Federer, he has not won a tournament since he beat Murray at the Australian Open; he has appeared in nine tournaments since recording that last notable victory.

Most of the drama all week long in Toronto surrounded Federer. Like Nadal, he had been away from the ATP World Tour since Wimbledon, and he had invited Paul Annacone--- formerly the coach of Pete Sampras and Tim Henman--- to join him in a trial period as coach. Federer had not played particularly well in straight set triumphs over Juan Ignacio Chela and Michael Llodra, but had come through both contests unscathed.  Llodra—a left-hander who attacked his way to a 4-1 opening set lead before falling 7-6, 6-3--- had even asked Federer for his shirt after the match as a gift for his son, a curious thing for a 30-year-old tour veteran to do. Be that as it may, everyone had looked forward to Federer’s quarterfinal contest against the increasingly self assured Tomas Berdych, who had toppled the Swiss from match point down in Miami earlier in the year before striking down the six time champion in a four set Wimbledon quarterfinal.

So here was Berdych in Toronto, looking to upend Federer for the third consecutive time, comporting himself as if he fully believed he could realize that significant feat. He very nearly did. No fewer than eight times in the latter stages of a highly charged and thoroughly absorbing encounter, Berdych was within two points of victory. But Federer, buoyed decidedly by a crowd that was overwhelming on his side, willed his way to the win. Federer had been primed at the outset of this showdown, taking the opening set 6-3 on one timely break of serve, making just the kind of start he wanted. The second set was fought at a furious pace. Federer was behind 15-40 at 2-3 and again at 3-4 but held on with tenacity each time. At 4-4, he created two break point opportunities of his own, but Berdych kept his nerve, refusing to allow the 29-year-old the luxury of serving for the match.

When Federer served at 5-6 in that second set, a tie-break seemed certain. After commencing that game with a double fault, Federer advanced to 40-15, only to double fault again. He then drove an inside-out forehand wildly out of court. Berdych recognized his opportunity, making a delayed approach to the net behind a scorching forehand down the line, closing in for a winning backhand volley down the line. Berdych was at set point, and ready to exploit his unexpected opening. He drove one of his trademark flat two-handed backhands crosscourt with excellent pace and depth, and Federer badly miss-hit a backhand long. Just like that, it was one set all.

At 1-1 in the final set, Berdych was in an immediate bind, down 0-40. But he unhesitatingly responded with both force and conviction. An ace, a crisp backhand volley winner and a punishing forehand down the line that provoked an error from Federer lifted Berdych back to deuce. He held on for 2-1 with an ace, then broke Federer in the following game. On break point, he crushed a forehand down the line, and Federer could not answer the challenge. He sliced a backhand long, and Berdych was right where he wanted to be, up a break at 3-1 in the final set. On his way to 5-2, Berdych served two love games in a row. The 6’5”, 24-year-old from the Czech Republic served for the match in the ninth game of that gripping third set.

Both men played that stirring game with vigor and panache. Federer--- as is his custom in pressure situations--- made Berdych play, and tried to find the delicate balance between patience and aggression. Berdych was determined to keep dictating play with his awesome power off the ground and on serve, hoping to use the extraordinary pace and depth that had carried him to the edge of victory to put him across the finish line. At 5-3, 30-40, Berdych saved a break point. At deuce, he pulled Federer wide with his favorite serve in the deuce court, anticipating his opponent’s crosscourt return. But Berdych drove a forehand long with a big opening down the line. Federer had a second break point that Berdych erased with a thundering first serve down the T. With another chance to advance to match point, Berdych was unlucky. Federer completely miss-hit a backhand approach short down the line, but Berdych still got up to that ball and cracked a forehand pass down the line. Federer lunged desperately for a backhand drop volley, but his shot was sitting up nicely for Berdych, who scampered in for a two-handed backhand pass crosscourt. The court was wide open, but Berdych overplayed his shot, sending it wide.

Berdych got back to deuce again, but missed another forehand down the line. On the next point, Federer sliced a backhand crosscourt that seemed destined to go long, but the ball landed just inside the baseline and Berdych was ill prepared. With an obstinate and well orchestrated stand, Federer had somehow broken back. He then held easily for 5-5. But, at 5-6, he was down 15-30. With a chance to make it to double match point, Berdych went for a difficult running forehand down the line, but hit it wide. Federer followed with two clutch first serves to close out that game, winning the second of those points with a surprise serve-and-volley combination that had Paul Annacone’s name written all over it. Federer kicked his first serve high to the Berdych backhand and closed in tight for an easy backhand first volley winner down the line. Federer had found his way improbably into a tie-break, and then opened that sequence with a forehand return winner off the net cord.

That piece of good luck seemed to relax Federer, who rolled to 4-0, then pushed on to 5-2. But Berdych was not ready to make any concessions. He drew even at 5-5 with persistence and discipline, but Federer was serving, and he took that point with a vintage inside-out forehand that Berdych could only slice off the backhand tamely into the net. With Berdych serving at 5-6 and match point down, he missed his first serve and then Federer took control of the rally. Federer drew Berdych in with a short backhand slice down the middle. Berdych came forward but missed his approach long, and Federer had prevailed 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (5) in the best match these two combatants have ever played against each other.

Boosted considerably by one of his most important match victories in months, Federer took on Novak Djokovic in the penultimate round. Both players knew precisely what was at stake. A win for Federer assured him of regaining the No. 2 world ranking, while Djokovic recognized that a victory in his column would keep him ahead of his exalted adversary and boost his confidence immeasurably .Both players had every reason to be fully motivated, but at the outset only one of them showed up.

A reckless Djokovic trailed 1-6, 0-2, 0-30 in no time flat. His attitude, tactics and stroke execution were abysmal. He was going for broke on nearly every single shot, looking to hit winners entirely too early in points, blasting away mindlessly as if he did not really care what happened. Djokovic seemed resigned to defeat, and was unwilling to play any defense whatsoever. His risk taking bordered on the ridiculous. Federer, meanwhile, was striking the ball well and serving purposefully, but all he had to do was keep the ball reasonably deep and avoid careless mistakes to keep in command. Djokovic--- refusing to stop going for non-percentage backhands down the line, serving poorly, never digging in to prolong the rallies--- was embarrassingly inept.

But the Serbian pulled himself together in the nick of time. He held on for 1-2 in that second set, broke Federer for the first time in the following game, then held at love for 3-2. Djokovic had turned into a different player, finding his range, going more selectively for the backhand down the line, utterly controlling points with devastatingly potent flat forehands. Federer realized he was in an unexpected scuffle, and made a determined stand to regain the upper hand. Federer saved a break point to reach 3-3, but the seventh game was pivotal. It went to deuce eight times before Djokovic held on, and then he broke Federer in the following game with his defense making all the difference. Djokovic closed out that set by winning six of the last seven games.

Nonetheless, Federer was in charge again early in the third set. He broke a wavering Djokovic at love for 3-1, held on for 4-1, and seemed headed for a comfortable victory. Yet Djokovic had other notions. This enigmatic man held for 2-4 and then broke Federer in a four deuce seventh game. On the penultimate point of that hard fought game, Federer double faulted. Then he tried a forehand drop shot approach, but Djokovic read it early and rolled a backhand passing shot out of Federer’s reach. Djokovic was now keeping Federer at bay with his brilliant blend of power and control off the ground. He was hitting clusters of winners made possible by virtue of his vastly improved shot selection and point construction.

Djokovic made it back to 4-4, and briefly Federer was reeling. He made a pair of glaring forehand unforced errors to go down 0-30, but served his way admirably out of trouble to hold on for 5-4. Djokovic did not panic, holding at 15 for 5-5. Federer was down 15-40 in the eleventh game but Djokovic missed a forehand return long and then wasted an excellent return of serve at 30-40, losing that point with an unforced error off the backhand. It was deuce. Djokovic won a scintillating rally with a forehand down the line winner to earn a third break point, but Federer bailed himself out again with a magnificent first serve down the T.

 Much to the dismay of Djokovic, Federer held on for 6-5. But the Serbian had two game points in the twelfth game as he was striving to reach a tie-break.  That would have been an intriguing way to end the contest because the first time Djokovic defeated Federer was back in 2007 in Montreal, when he came through to win a final set tie-break. But Federer sensed that Djokovic was deeply fatigued, and he wisely played conservatively. At the end, Djokovic made two unforced errors in a row. Federer won this bizarre piece of business 6-1, 3-6, 7-5. To be sure, he was thrown badly off stride by Djokovic’s unprofessional start, but in the end Federer was lucky to survive as Djokovic faltered so frequently in the latter stages after elevating his game so dramatically earlier on.

As for Nadal, he never quite found his hard court game all week, which was understandable given his long layoff. In his opening match against Stanislas Wawrinka in the second round, Nadal needed to save five set points in the first set before winning 7-6 (12), 6-3. He then had a 6-2, 4-2 lead against Kevin Anderson but was pushed into a close second set tie-break (8-6) before he could close out that victory. Nadal then met Philipp Kohlschreiber in the quarterfinals. He was listless and out of sorts in dropping the opening set, but regrouped to take the second set, taking a much more aggressive posture up on the baseline. Nevertheless, Nadal had to fend off a break point at 2-3 in the final set before completing a three set victory.

Nadal surely knew how well Murray was playing. The previous day, the British competitor had not lost his serve and had displayed an unrelenting brand of aggression from the backcourt throughout that match. The Spaniard indeed raised his game to a large degree, and had he been more opportunistic he might have won. At 3-3 in the first set, Nadal got to 15-40 on Murray’s serve, and was presented with a second serve from his adversary. But Nadal--- trying to take it early--- did not time that return well and hit it much too short. Murray walloped a forehand to the open court to win that point. At 30-40, Nadal realized an instant too late that Murray had probably served a double fault long, but did not challenge the call. The television replay confirmed that it had been a double fault. Murray held on and then broke Nadal in the following game as Nadal pressed on a backhand down the line at break point down and missed it.

Murray served out the set with gusto, releasing three consecutive aces for 40-0, double faulting, but then making amends with an inside-out forehand winner in response to a backhand hit down the middle from Nadal. The Spaniard was in a quandary. No one had returned his serve nearly as well as Murray all tournament long. Nadal was apprehensive about allowing Murray too many chances to attack his second serve, so he compromised too much on his first serve. In the third game of the second set, Nadal was 12 for 12 on first serves but still got broken as Murray stung him frequently with piercing returns. Murray held at love with an ace for 3-1 and nearly pulled away from his illustrious adversary. Serving at 1-3, Nadal was up 40-0 but Murray rallied to reach deuce before the world No. 1 got out of that game. Now Nadal played far and away his best return game of the match. With Murray at 3-2, 30-40, Nadal jumped on a forehand return of serve that set up one of his inimitable topspin forehand crosscourt winners; that shot landed on the sideline, and a gleeful Nadal pumped his fists in celebration. The exhilarated Nadal held for 4-3. When Murray double faulted to trail 15-40 in the following game, a Nadal turnaround seemed entirely possible. He was, after all, at double break point, on the verge of serving for the set.

But Murray admirably kept his composure, won four points in a row for a crucial hold, and never looked back. Serving for the match, Murray lost only one point, coming away deservedly with 6-3, 6-4 triumph, only his fourth in twelve career meetings with the Spaniard. One day later, he became only the fifth player to defeat Nadal and Federer in the same tournament. That was an impressive feat, but most importantly Murray took his game to another level at a crucial stage of the year. No matter how he fares in Cincinnati this week, Murray will head into the U.S. Open believing in himself and his chances. Another striking feature of Murray’s week in Toronto was his decidedly calmer demeanor. Too often in the past he had vented his frustrations angrily at his courtside coaches, from Brad Gilbert in the old days to his Miles Maclagan recently.

In an odd way, he benefitted from being on his own in Toronto. The urge to blame his problems during matches on someone else was seemingly gone. Murray relaxed and played with controlled aggression, and let his talent flow perhaps more freely than ever before. To be sure, he resorted to some of his old defensive patterns at times after his blazing start against Federer, but in the end his boldness returned. Murray has restored his conviction and reminded all of his detractors that he is a joyous player to watch when he is not getting in his own way.

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