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Steve Flink: Murray Heads to Wimbledon with Unmistakable Momentum

6/14/2011 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

With Wimbledon commencing in less than a week, Andy Murray is in the best possible frame of mind. For the second time in three years, he captured the grass court event at Queen’s Club, taking the AEGON Championships in London with a hard fought victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the final. Murray thus secured his first singles title of 2011. He followed up on a surprisingly productive clay court campaign by coming through admirably on the lawns, and that triumph will surely add decidedly to his self belief as he heads into the most prestigious tournament of them all at the All England Club. The view here is that the four leading players all have an excellent chance to succeed on the premier stage in the sport, and Murray is very much in that elite group.

To be sure, Rafael Nadal must be the slight favorite to rule at Wimbledon for the third time. He has not lost a match there since falling in a five set final against Roger Federer in 2007. Novak Djokovic has lost only one match all year long while capturing no fewer than seven tournaments, and he is only a whisker away from moving past Nadal to the highly coveted territory of No. 1 in the world. As for Federer, he was victorious six times at “The Big W” between 2003 and 2009, and the Swiss is irrefutably the most natural grass court player of them all.  Federer will be eager and unwavering as he attempts to tie Pete Sampras’s modern men’s record of seven singles championships at Wimbledon.

And yet, the feeling grows that Murray is long overdue to deliver on his vast promise at a major championship. Three times he has been in the finals of Grand Slam tournaments, most recently at the Australian Open earlier this year. Moreover, the British No. 1 has gone to the semifinals on the fabled Centre Court the past two years, bowing first against a strategically astute Andy Roddick and then falling short against the redoubtable Nadal a year ago. Murray will surely be tougher than ever to beat this time around at Wimbledon, and his Queen’s Club triumph is just the validation he needs to carry him onward and upward through the upcoming fortnight that means the world to all of the game’s finest competitors.

In the semifinals at Queen’s, Murray thoroughly outclassed Roddick with astonishing ease, crushing the American 6-3, 6-1 with one of his most masterful displays of diversified, all court, purposeful tennis. In the first set alone, Murray served ten aces. He broke Roddick four times, and never came close to losing his own delivery, conceding only nine points in eight service games across the two sets. Roddick’s weaknesses were clearly exposed, and his first serve was much too predictable. In turn, the American came forward too frequently behind the most mediocre of approach shots. Roddick unwisely tried to outduel Murray in sliced backhand exchanges, and that tactic backfired completely. The fact remains that Murray was in rare form, hitting winners effortlessly off both sides, giving nothing away, returning serve stupendously. It was one of those days when everything he touched turned to gold; he simply could do no wrong.

But Tsonga was a much more daunting opponent for Murray in the championship match. The immensely athletic Frenchman was in commanding form, keeping Murray off guard and ill at ease for most of the match with the intelligence of his game plan on serve. Time and again, Tsonga would open up the court on the deuce court side, swinging his serve wide to set up his potent inside-out forehand. Tsonga often stayed back on his first serve and came in off short returns from Murray. But the Frenchman cunningly served-and-volleyed with enough regularity to keep Murray off balance. This was instinctive genius in Tsonga’s part, because Murray never knew what was coming, which was surely unsettling for one of the game’s greatest returners.

Nevertheless, Tsonga did not put himself in a winning position simply by virtue of his talent and strategic acumen. He was also lucky at the right times. His good fortune began at 1-1 in the opening set, when he saved a break point with a backhand volley winner that clipped the net cord and fell over. Tsonga held on in that game, and broke Murray for 4-2 with a brilliant return game, including a startling one-handed backhand passing shot winner down the line for 0-40. Tsonga, of course, has a two-hander off that side and rarely even tries to hit it with one hand. Tsonga served out the first set from 15-40 down with calm assurance, erasing the break points with a forehand winner crosscourt followed by a service winner wide to the backhand.

At 3-4 in the second set, Tsonga lived dangerously again. He was behind break point four times in that game. The 26-year-old battled out of it with gusto. He was fortunate on the first break point when he miss-hit a forehand volley inside out behind Murray. His volley stayed in despite the poor execution. Tsonga wiped away the second break point with a daring, 130 MPH second serve to the forehand that Murray understandably netted. On the third break point, Tsonga kicked a second serve to the backhand, came in unexpectedly behind it, and put away a volley with ease. Once more—on the fourth break point against him—Tsonga served-and-volleyed, directing his first volley down the middle, rushing Murray into a backhand passing shot error. Tsonga marched on to 4-4, frustrating Murray deeply in the process.

At 5-5 in that suspenseful second set, Murray, probably distraught after so many missed opportunities, nearly cracked. He was down 15-40 after making consecutive unforced errors off the forehand. If he had lost either of the next two points, Tsonga would have been serving for the match, and the title would have almost certainly belonged to him. But Murray composed himself in the nick of time. He saved the first break point with a well executed backhand drop shot that coaxed a forehand error from Tsonga; on the second, Tsonga’s forehand return hit the net cord, hung in the air, but did not make it over the net. Murray held on gamely, but Tsonga answered with an easy hold of his own for 6-6.

In the critical tie-break that followed, the two players were locked at 2-2, but Murray collected five points in a row to take the set. At 2-2, Murray swung his slice serve wide in the deuce court to set up an inside-out forehand winner, tearing a page out of Tsonga’s playbook.  The next point was backbreaking for Tsonga. Murray stepped in and took a two-handed backhand return early off a kick serve. Tsonga was serving-and-volleying but the fine return surprised him, and he missed the first volley. It was 4-2 for Murray, and Tsonga was rattled for the first time in the match, driving an inside-out forehand wildly out of court to give Murray a cushion at 5-2. Murray easily collected the next two points to close out the tie-break.

The 24-year-old was back in business, but not entirely in the clear. At 1-1 in the final set, Tsonga escaped again, saving two break points with a well executed forehand drop volley that Murray could not answer, and a clean winner off the forehand. Murray was creating opening after opening to break serve, but Tsonga kept denying him with stellar play under pressure. But in the fifth game of the final set, with the set deadlocked at 2-2, Murray at last found a way to get what he wanted. Tsonga was serving at 30-40, down break point for the tenth time in the match. Murray laced a forehand crosscourt on the dead run with accelerated pace, and Tsonga was forced into a forehand down the line error. Murray was up a break at 3-2 in the final set, and he never looked back, dropping only one point in his last three service games. At 4-3, 40-0, Murray advertised his growing confidence. Tsonga was out of position after hitting a backhand pass on the run. Murray responded with a between the legs forehand half volley drop shot winner into the open court. The 3-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4 victory for Murray over Tsonga was, in the end, well deserved and impressively crafted.

Now the stage is set for Wimbledon, and this may be one of the best fortnights at the shrine that we will ever see. The four top players are all brimming with conviction as they approach the event they cherish more than another. Let’s start with Djokovic. As much as he wanted to add the French Open to his collection after an immaculate season, it was not the end of the world for the 24-year-old Serbian to have his 43 match winning streak stopped by Federer in the penultimate round at Roland Garros. All along, Djokovic had said that Wimbledon was his highest priority, and his history there has not been bad at all.

In 2007, he made it to the semifinals before losing to Nadal. Two years later, he reached the quarters, bowing against an accomplished grass court player in Tommy Haas. Last year, Djokovic was struggling inordinately with his game as he approached the All England Club, and yet he went to the semifinals for the second time. He did not shine against Tomas Berdych in a straight set loss, but he was not uncomfortable on the grass, and had he managed to win a tight second set tie-break, Djokovic might well have emerged victorious from that match.

This year, of course, he is another player altogether. Despite his loss to Federer in Paris, he still holds a 3-1 head-to-head advantage over the Swiss in 2011, including a straight set semifinal win at the Australian Open. Against Nadal, Djokovic has an astounding 4-0 record in 2011, all final round triumphs. Two of those wins were on hard courts at Indian Wells and Miami, with two more occurring on the Spaniard’s favorite clay court turf. Meanwhile, Djokovic is 2-0 against Murray, including a straight set triumph in the Australian Open final, as the Serbian won that tournament for the second time.

Surely, Djokovic believes he is ready to put Wimbledon into his victory column. Perhaps some of the pressure that had been building all year long because of his improbably long winning streak will not be gone. In any case, Djokovic will like his chances; he no longer fears any of his rivals, he has taken his game to a level he had never attained before, and the composure he sorely lacked in the past is a central part of his mastery of the game this year.

What can be said about Nadal? In 2007, the incomparable left-hander with the largest heart in tennis—and a willpower no one can surpass—lost a brilliantly contested five set final with Federer on the Centre Court. Had he been able to exploit two crucial 15-40 opportunities early in the final set, Nadal would have put himself in a strong position to claim the crown. But a year later, appearing in a third straight final, Nadal toppled Federer 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7 in the greatest tennis match I have ever seen. A year later, bad knees kept Nadal from defending his crown, but he came back a year ago to reclaim it, surviving a pair five set skirmishes early in the event before sweeping past robin Soderling in the quarters, Murray in the semis, and Berdych in the final.

And so Nadal will be in full pursuit of his third Wimbledon title in a row on probably his second best surface. He got three matches in at Queen’s, which was just enough. Having won the first set from Tsonga in a tie-break, Nadal led 4-3 on serve in the second, but dropped nine of the last ten games to lose that quarterfinal match 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-1. Nadal was spent, listlessly going through the motions in the final set, competing with not even a hint of emotional energy. Perhaps next year the Spaniard should not play Queen’s; this was the second year in a row that he was devoid of intensity. A year ago, he bowed out tamely against Feliciano Lopez in the same manner.

The loss at Queen’s didn’t hurt Nadal in 2010, and his latest defeat won’t matter much either. Nadal’s extraordinary quickness and excellent anticipation are two primary reasons why he is so formidable at Wimbledon. He also gets up on the baseline with more frequency and flattens out his forehand whenever possible. Nadal’s grass court game is an aggressive variation on the way he plays elsewhere. He will be considerably more relaxed than he was at Roland Garros. He wanted the title so badly in Paris that he sometimes got in his own way, but at Wimbledon Nadal will not be burdened by the same expectations; he will see himself simply as one of the leading candidates, and that will clearly work in his favor.

Federer, of course, believes that he virtually owns Wimbledon. It is his primary target every year, and the relatively low bounce of the courts suits his style to the hilt. Federer knew when he took on Djokovic in Paris that he had to serve at a more consistently high level than he had in a very long while, and he did just that. The serve will be the key even more on the grass. In all six of his championship seasons, the pinpoint accuracy and deception of his first serve was what largely carried him to victory. Most notably, he served magnificently in the fifth set of the 2007  final against Nadal down the stretch, and in his much heralded triumph over Roddick in the 2009  final, he served a career high fifty aces, coming through 16-14 in the fifth set. Ironically, his serve was better than Roddick’s when it counted on that landmark occasion.

But the dominance of Federer on the lawns has diminished in recent years. A year ago, Berdych cut him down in the quarters, the first time he had lost before the final since 2002. His coach Paul Annacone will be imploring Federer to come forward more than is his custom, to get to the net more regularly and take command in the forecourt. Nadal, Djokovic and Murray can all more than hold their own with Federer from the backcourt; he has to be willing to force the issue more and make them pass him, but old habits are not broken easily. Be that at it may, Federer fully believes his game flourishes on the grass, and he is convinced no one will beat him if he is at his very best. The fact remains that Federer won his first tournament of 2011 in Doha, but has played eight events since without adding another title. He got a lift from reaching the final of Roland Garros, but he walks into Wimbledon trying to break a pattern of losing. He was wise to pull out of Halle to rest his deeply fatigued body; otherwise, he would have set himself up for a loss he didn’t need.

Nadal, Djokovic and Federer know precisely what it takes to survive a two week test at a major tennis tournament; the Swiss has captured a men’s record 16 majors, Nadal has moved into the double digits with 10, and Djokovic has two to his credit. Murray is still searching for that elusive first crown on a “Big Four” stage. His first loss in a major final back in 2008 against Federer at Flushing Meadows was understandable and not an agonizing setback, but his last two defeats in Grand Slam finals to Federer in Australia a year ago and to Djokovic on the same court this year were bruising setbacks for Murray. Now he has a real chance to make amends, to succeed at last when it really counts, to give himself the historical stature he deserves.

I believe he has a very good chance to win it all this time around at Wimbledon. Murray’s innate talent and flair is indisputable, and his will to win is immense. But determination alone will not allow Andy Murray to purchase the title. The draw will dictate that Murray will need to beat two of his three biggest rivals to garner the single biggest crown in the world of tennis. And yet, perhaps one of those superstars will get upset. Both Juan Martin Del Potro and Milos Raonic could knock off one of the favorites.

In the final analysis, I am picking Nadal to win his third singles championship on Centre Court. Nevertheless, I believe Andy Murray is poised to make another serious run at the title, and it would not surprise me in the least if he finds a way to surpass all of the others and stand alone as the Wimbledon champion of 2011. Of this much I am certain: no one other than Nadal, Djokovic, Federer or Murray is going to win Wimbledon this year. That extraordinary foursome has the balance of power firmly in their hands.

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