by Steve Flink
Life isn’t easy for those who make their living playing the game of tennis. Those who perform at or near the top of the profession can never afford a prolonged period of relaxation. The battle for supremacy is ever fluctuating. The outcomes of important contests can often be determined by the narrowest of margins, with the difference between victory and defeat coming down to a close call here, a capricious bounce there, or a bad break at the worst possible time. It is a cruel and sometimes inexplicable business that rewards hard workers and shot making skills, but it remains a sport where bad fortune can destroy the dreams of the leading competitors at any given moment. The best players realize that they do not fully control their own destinies, and they never will.
I don’t know how philosophical Andy Murray is, but he surely recognizes the complexity of the world he inhabits. Murray has been a great player for a long while now, and surely one day he will claim his share of Grand Slam championships. He has not yet done himself complete justice, but the 23-year-old from Scotland keeps dedicating himself unequivocally to his craft, striving to make himself a better player, driving himself ceaselessly in pursuit of his loftiest goals. Murray has not yet captured one of the four major championships, but the fact remains that he now has secured no fewer than six ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles, taking two of those elite crowns this year. That is a considerable feat.
His latest Masters 1000 triumph took place at the Shanghai Rolex Masters, a tournament he swept without the loss of a set. In the championship match, Murray cast aside Roger Federer 6-3, 6-2 with almost clinical efficiency, defeating his formidable rival for the 8th time in 13 career head to head clashes, raising his game immensely. It was arguably the best match Murray has played all year, and the victory was timely for the world No. 4. He had never toppled the 16 time Grand Slam tournament singles champion in a final before he struck down Federer in the final of the Masters 1000 event at Toronto over the summer. Now he has backed that win up with a second title round win in a row over a man who understands a thing or two about what it takes to succeed in championship matches; across his career, Federer has captured 63 singles titles. His loss in Shanghai to Murray was only his 28th in a final.
Murray was ready from the outset of this contest to seize control of the proceedings, and he did just that. Federer was up 40-15 in the opening game of the match, having just served an ace wide in the Ad Court. But the Swiss—in a sign of things to come—made consecutive unforced errors with his inside-in forehand, a shot that had cost him heavily in the latter stages of his U.S. Open loss to Novak Djokovic. At deuce, Murray sent a trademark two-handed backhand passing shot crosscourt, keeping that shot remarkably low. Federer made a respectable backhand volley down the line, but Murray answered emphatically with a scorching forehand passing shot winner crosscourt. Now at break point, Murray threw in an effective backhand slice down the line, luring Federer into a forehand crosscourt error.
That opening game of the match was crucial. It was going to be an uphill battle for Federer the rest of the way, and Murray was off and running. He did not miss a first serve in the following game, holding at 15. Murray nearly broke Federer again in the third game, reaching break point. Federer saved it commandingly, winning a 12 stroke exchange by forcing Murray into a running forehand mistake. Federer held on for 1-2, and had a break point himself in the fourth game. Federer had control of the rally and got a relatively short ball. Rather than play the percentages with an inside-out forehand approach, he went for a drop shot as he moved forward, and netted it.
A pattern had emerged. Murray was playing the big points decidedly better than his adversary. At 2-1, deuce, he drove an inside-out forehand winner into the clear off a short return from Federer, and then he closed out that game with an excellent kick second serve to Federer’s backhand. An uncomfortable Federer could not make the return. Murray had advanced to 3-1. After Federer held at love in the fifth game, Murray responded confidently, holding at 15, releasing two service winners and a terrific backhand down the line winner to make it to 4-2. Once more, Federer was under duress. He survived a five deuce game and saved two break points, holding on gamely for 3-4. Federer connected with 14 of 16 first serves in that game, but barely held.
Not atypically, Federer nearly willed his way back into the set again. Murray double faulted to trail 30-40 in the eighth game, but displayed extraordinary poise, saving the break point with an ace out wide in the Ad Court, releasing perhaps the best serve in his arsenal at a critical moment. On the next point, the two players produced a magnificent 28 stroke rally, but Federer blinked first, missing a backhand down the line wide. Although Murray missed an inside-out forehand approach on his first game point, he made amends on his second. Once again, he went to the heavy kicking second serve to the backhand, and the spin, velocity and placement were too much for Federer. With that bold delivery, Murray moved to 5-3.
Federer had somehow stayed in the set despite struggling inordinately all through it. But now Murray put the clamps down. In the ninth game, Federer opened with a double fault, then erred on another inside-in forehand for 0-30. Federer climbed back to 15-30, but then Murray strung together two of his most spectacular points of the day. Federer had him off balance, and Murray sliced a forehand short. Federer approached back behind Murray to the forehand, but Murray lunged and drove a forehand down the line passing shot for a startling winner. At 15-40, down double set point, Federer was up at the net again. He angled a forehand volley short crosscourt. Federer seemed certain to either win the point with that shot, or at least set up an easy follow up volley. But Murray scampered forward and astoundingly angled a forehand pass acutely out of reach to seal the set. It was the shot of the match.
Yet Murray had much work left to do. In the opening game of the second set, he trailed 15-40, but was unflustered. He saved one break point with a thundering forehand crosscourt that was too much for Federer, then was fortunate as Federer drove a routine forehand crosscourt long under no pressure. Murray aced Federer down the T and cracked a service winner to hold on for 1-0. After Federer held for 1-1, Murray found himself down 15-40 for the second service game in a row. Federer could not exploit the opening, making a backhand unforced error after Murray defended ably. At 30-40, Murray and Federer traded punches in a gripping 29 stroke rally, with Murray ending it by driving a two-hander brilliantly down the line for a winner. Federer then overanxiously netted a forehand down the line, and Murray closed out that game with another timely ace. It was 2-1 for Murray.
Serving in the fourth game, Federer did not miss a first serve, but the Swiss lacked his customary velocity and accuracy on that delivery, and Murray was reading it beautifully. At 30-40, Federer was in command, playing a forehand swing volley from close range that was called out. Federer challenged the call and was vindicated, but that meant they had to play a let because Murray had returned the swing volley from his opponent. When they replayed the point, Murray made a deep return to the backhand. Federer ran around it to play his patented inside-out forehand, but his shot was well wide. Murray surged to 3-1, and then held at love in the fifth game despite missing four consecutive first serves. But he ended that game with two more masterful points, flattening out a two-hander down the line for a winner off Federer’s topspin backhand crosscourt for 40-0. Then he drew Federer in with a forehand drop shot crosscourt. Federer scraped the ball back, but Murray had the court wide open for a backhand pass.
Murray had won 13 of the last 16 points on his way to 4-1. Federer held one more time for 2-4, but there would be no gallant comeback for him on this afternoon. Murray held at 15 for 5-2. When Federer served to stay in the match at 2-5, he got to 30-0, but did not win another point. He seemed desperate by then, serving-and-volleying twice, charging in almost mindlessly on everything else. At match point down, Murray kept yet another backhand passing shot very low crosscourt, and Federer missed the backhand volley. Murray prevailed 6-3, 6-2 for his most decisive victory ever over his renowned opponent. To be sure, Federer had played a bad match by his standards, making 30 unforced errors, 12 more than his rival. Federer got in 70% of his first serves, but won only 65% of those points because he was not finding the corners or getting enough pace on his delivery. Murray was at 53% on first serves, but he took 82% of those points and won considerably more free points with his faster and more precise deliveries. Meanwhile, Murray’s second serve was more penetrating than I have ever seen it. He won 56% of his second serve points, while Federer was at a lowly 24% in that category. Murray never lost his serve in the match, saving all six break points he faced in four different service games.
And yet, the week was not a total loss for Federer. He went through the draw without losing a set before his meeting with Murray, clipping John Isner swiftly in straight sets, and most importantly eclipsing Djokovic in the semifinals. In their first collision since Djokovic saved two match points and toppled Federer in the U.S. Open semifinals, the two competitors put on an impressive show in the first set of their Shanghai semifinal. Both men were close to the top of their games, picking up where the left off at the end of their stirring U.S. Open duel.
Djokovic had been on a good roll since the Open and had won Beijing the week before without losing a set. This was a chance to build on what he did there, and establish some momentum in his rivalry with Federer. Only once in their 17 match series has Djokovic beaten Federer two times in a row. In Shanghai, Djokovic needed to win that first set, perhaps even more than Federer. He gave it his all, but that was not good enough. With Federer serving at 1-2 in the first set, Djokovic had four break points. The Serbian was far too casual on the first one, netting a backhand drop shot on the 14th stroke of an excellent rally. Federer saved the second with a service winner, and fought off the third with a forehand winner off a short return.
On the fourth break point of that crucial game, Federer served out wide to Djokovic’s backhand. That first serve was a beauty, but Djokovic at full stretch angled his return sharply crosscourt, with his shot landing low just inside the sideline near the service line. Federer responded as only he could, majestically rolling a backhand crosscourt winner acutely crosscourt. He held on for 2-2.
But he had more trouble ahead. At 3-4, he was down 0-30. Djokovic and Federer produced one of their best rallies of the day, a 19 stroke exchange. Federer won that point with an impossibly angled backhand crosscourt that Djokovic could barely touch. An ace took Federer back to 30-30. He attacked his way to 40-30, and Federer held on for 4-4 with some help from Djokovic. Djokovic put up a deep lob, and Federer could not put away his smash as he retreated. The Serbian should have been able to get his shot back into play, but he bungled it.
Yet Djokovic gave himself more chances. Federer was serving at 4-5, 30-30, two points from losing the set. Federer aced Djokovic with a slice serve wide for 40-30, but then missed an easy forehand to make it deuce. Once more, Djokovic was two points from taking the opening set. But he could not exploit his opportunity. At deuce, his topspin lob was much too short and Federer put away an overhead. Djokovic then suffered from another brain cramp, netting a backhand drop shot. Federer had made it safely to 5-5, and he never looked back. With Djokovic serving at 5-5, 30-30, the Serbian had a good opening for a backhand crosscourt pass, but netted it. He still saved a break point and got to game point. Stubbornly, he went for another backhand down the line drop shot, and Federer was more than ready for it. He whipped a forehand crosscourt that Djokovic could not handle. Djokovic followed with consecutive backhand unforced errors. Federer had the break for 6-5, and then held easily for the set. He coasted through the second set, moving ahead by two breaks, eventually prevailing 7-5, 6-4. Djokovic has one of the best two-handed backhands in tennis, and that shot is one of the hallmarks of his game. Will somebody please tell him to stop resorting to the backhand drop shot so often and so predictably?
Meanwhile, the shocker of the week was Rafael Nadal’s three set loss to Jurgen Melzer. Or was it so shocking? Nadal made one of his few bad tactical errors of the year by playing in Bangkok and Tokyo in the two weeks leading up to Shanghai. He lost a bizarre match to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the semifinals of Bangkok, squandering 24 of 26 break points in a three set loss. But he captured the title in Tokyo with a final round triumph over Gael Monfils after saving two match points in a stirring three set semifinal contest with Viktor Troicki. On he went to Shanghai, but that was a serious mistake.
No one in the upper levels of the game can play three weeks in a row on the ATP World Tour these days, especially the industrious Nadal. The game is too physical, the matches too taxing, the competition too fierce. Nadal needed to skip either Bangkok or Tokyo if he wanted to be sparkle in Shanghai. He managed to knock out Stanislas Wawrinka in straight sets in his opening match in China, but then he found himself confronted by a surprisingly inspired and crackling Melzer, who had never taken a set off the Spaniard in three previous head to head duels. Melzer had been thoroughly outclassed on all of those occasions, but this time he made up his mind to go for broke from the outset. No long rallies. No chances for Nadal to geometrically send him into submission. No way was Melzer going to play this match on anything but his own terms.
His strategy would never have worked if Nadal had been near the top of his mental game, but the Spaniard was plainly not in his usual competitive frame of mind. He looked as if he wanted to be anywhere else but on that tennis court. He was emotionally way out of sorts, and Melzer seemed to sense that from the beginning.
The left-handed Melzer came out of the gates swinging freely. His ground strokes are normally streaky but he could not miss in the first set, and the winners were flying off his racket. His forehand was on fire. Nadal was getting beaten time and again in shorter rallies. Melzer was teeing off with his forehand, going for backhand down the line winners behind Nadal, serving the lights out. He was in the zone. A Nadal in a normal frame of mind would have stood up to the Austrian and imposed himself, but this was not the Nadal we know. Melzer—who saved two break points in the opening game—stormed to a 4-1 first set lead. Nadal fought hard to hold his serve in the sixth game in an attempt to stay in the set, but it was to no avail.
Nadal rallied from 15-40 down in that game and had two game points, but Melzer wiped them both away with outright winners. Nadal saved a third break point, but down break point for the fourth time he flailed uncharacteristically at a forehand and drove it long. The set was soon gone as Melzer served his sixth and seventh aces at 5-1 to close it out unhesitatingly. But Nadal briefly got his bearings in the second set. With Melzer serving at 2-3, 30-30, Nadal got his chance, and took it. Melzer served-and-volleyed on a second serve and Nadal got the return down at his opponent’s feet to win the point. At 30-40, Nadal rolled a backhand pass down the line to force an error on the volley. Ahead he was 4-2, and he held on twice to make it one set all.
Briefly, Nadal seemed revitalized, but it did not last. Serving at 2-3, 15-40, Nadal meekly sent an inside out forehand wide. Melzer took the match 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 for the biggest match win of his career. Nadal was ripe to be upset, and Melzer took full advantage of that fact. For the first time all year, Nadal was beaten before the quarterfinals in a tournament. Meanwhile, Melzer fell in the Shanghai quarterfinals against Juan Monaco, who in turn was defeated handily by Murray.
In many ways, this was the most convincing week of Murray’s career, even more impressive than his run at Montreal in August when he upended Nadal and Federer back to back for the crown. Murray was almost unbreakable, and he was unshakable as well. In handling Federer so straightforwardly, it was apparent that there were no holes in his game. His first serve was remarkable, his second serve vastly improved, his court coverage impeccable, his anticipation uncanny. Moreover, his forehand was strikingly solid. He was not missing off that side. The consistency he found off the forehand enabled him to attack and defend equally well, and it gave him the confidence to go for his backhand and be more aggressive at the right times.
This is not to say that Andy Murray will not hit any more bumps from here on in this year, and beyond. He is well aware that there will always be unanticipated challenges and unexpected setbacks, failures as well as triumphs. But, for the time being at least, Murray is in a good place, and he is playing the kind of tennis that will keep him up there among the elite for a long time to come. The feeling grows that Murray has the capacity to move beyond himself to an even higher plateau, and the view here is that he will get there soon.
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