10/10/2011 4:00:00 PM
by Steve Flink
Watching Andy Murray cast aside Rafael Nadal 3-6, 6-2, 6-0 to secure the Racuten Japan Open ATP World Tour Masters 1000 crown in Tokyo over the weekend, I was flabbergasted by the quality of his shot making and the staggering level of his performance. Murray was striking the ball with such immaculate timing and unrelenting authority across the last two sets that he looked nothing short of unassailable. Sweeping 12 of the last 14 games to win from a set down against the unswerving Spaniard, granting his formidable rival a mere four points in the third and final set, turning around a final round contest so comprehensively against a man who had beaten him four consecutive times in 2011, Murray reminded us all that when he is in peak form, unburdened and in control of his emotions, he can play the game masterfully, compete with anyone in the world, strike down anyone who crosses his path.
Murray has finished the last three years stationed at No. 4 in the world, but his record this year—with the exception of a brief slump in the winter and spring following a bruising setback in the Australian Open final against Novak Djokovic—has been exceedingly consistent. He was the only man other than world No. 1 Novak Djokovic to reach at least the semifinals in every Grand Slam tournament. He has now captured two tournaments in a row since the U.S. Open, and three of his last four going back to Cincinnati in August. He is pushing himself inordinately hard across the autumn segment of the season, hoping to move past Roger Federer to No. 3 in the world, looking to set the stage for his most productive campaign yet in 2012. He still trails Federer narrowly in the ATP World Tour Rankings that reflect a player’s performance over the past twelve months, but in the “Year-To-Date” Rankings that examine 2011 alone, Murray has opened up a significant lead of more than 1000 points over his Swiss adversary. Murray has amassed 6200 points this year while Federer has collected 5185.
It must be mentioned that Murray did briefly reside at No. 2 in the world heading into the 2009 U.S. Open, but that was merely a fleeting moment. Finishing 2011 at No. 3 might seem like an insignificant distinction for a player of his stature, but the reality is that Murray is driving himself more purposefully through this stretch of the season than perhaps ever before, and surpassing Federer for the year would be a matter of considerable pride for a competitor in the upper reaches searching for that extra edge and hoping to find a burst of inspiration at a time of the year when many top players are either injured, jaded, spent and essentially devoid of emotional energy.
Murray’s triumph over Nadal was among the finest performances he has ever given. It was surely his biggest win of the year for many reasons. Nadal had cut down Murray at the last three majors in the penultimate round each time, winning a hard fought, straight set contest at Roland Garros before prevailing in four set battles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. The Spaniard had built a 13-4 lead in their career head-to-head series, and had captured his last five showdowns with Murray dating back to the end of 2010. While Nadal has been terribly deflated by falling six consecutive times in finals against Novak Djokovic this year, Murray had seemed similarly distressed about how to stop Nadal whenever they collided in 2011.
Moreover, Nadal—an estimable front runner—had never lost a match to Murray after winning the first set. That is why this win for Murray was such an important step for him. By no means did Nadal play badly; in fact, he was first rate in the opening set, picking up right where he left off in dismantling Murray at the U.S. Open. Nadal swept 12 of 15 points on his way to a 3-0 lead in that first set. He was dictating the rallies for the most part, and keeping Murray largely on the run and off balance. As the set progressed, however, Murray gradually got his bearings and found his range off his forehand. With Nadal serving at 4-2, Murray came from 40-15 down to reach break point, but the Spaniard saved himself there with a terrific backhand volley winner into the open court, followed with an ace, and held on.
Two games later, serving for the set at 5-3, Nadal was pressed hard again by his determined adversary. The Spaniard was down 0-30, then calmly collected the next three points. At 40-30, set point, Nadal was at his athletic best, coming in to make a difficult backhand half volley which he hit deliberately short. Murray scampered forward quickly and walloped a backhand pass up the line, but Nadal anticipated that play beautifully, lunging to his right for a backhand volley winner down the line with Murray stranded outside the alley. Having tucked that set away, this looked entirely like business as usual for Nadal. But Murray was not discouraged.
The British stylist opened the second set with a confident love game on serve, signaling that he was ready to elevate his game decidedly. When Nadal served at 1-2, both players knew how crucial that game was going to be. Nadal had not yet lost his serve. Murray needed a boost to his morale. Both men fought with high intensity and deep resolve throughout a four deuce game. In the end, as surprising as it was, Murray out-willed Nadal and got the break to go ahead 3-1 when the Spaniard sent a forehand crosscourt wide off a well struck Murray forehand down the line. Nadal knew that the momentum had shifted, and he came at Murray hard in a bold attempt to break back.
Murray was down 0-40 in the fifth game, but he served his way admirably out of that corner. With three swings of the racket, he was back to deuce, acing Nadal out wide in the Ad court, down the T in the deuce court, and down the T in the Ad court to travel swiftly back to deuce. Nadal earned a fourth break point, but Murray erased that emphatically with a forehand winner hit cleanly down the line. After four deuces, Murray held on tenaciously for 4-1, closing out that game by winning a 21 stroke backcourt exchange with a scintillating backhand crosscourt winner. That essentially sealed the set for the British stalwart. After Nadal held for 2-4, Murray took the next two games at the cost of only two points, as Nadal wore a look of weary resignation.
The final set was astonishing. Murray made three out of four first serves in holding at love for 1-0, broke Nadal at 30 for 2-0 with an excellent approach shot that rushed Nadal into a backhand passing shot mistake, and then held at love for 3-0, releasing three outright winners in that game. Nadal connected with three out of four first serves in the following game, but was broken at love as Murray cracked three more sparkling winners. On the 0-40 point, he read Nadal’s wide serve in the Ad court perfectly, angling a backhand return acutely crosscourt that was well out of his opponent’s reach. Murray produced two more winners in holding at 30 for 5-0, and then broke a bewildered Nadal at love, releasing a pair of winners in that game. In the final set, I counted only four unforced errors from Nadal; Murray’s cavalcade of winners—14 altogether—was the statistic of consequence. Moreover, his returns were so penetrating and accurate that Nadal won only 23 of 53 first serve points in the match.
Everything Murray touched in that third set seemed to turn to gold. He was hardly missing off the forehand and opening up the court skillfully with his inside-out shot off that side. He served magnificently, losing his delivery only once in the match. Most significant of all, Murray was taking his two-hander early, flattening it out brilliantly, and driving through the ball off both sides with sustained pace and authority. Gone was the Murray who has too frequently tried to rely on his defense and superb court coverage to wear his opposition down rather than seizing the initiative and becoming the aggressor he needs to be. He seldom went to his sliced backhand safety valve, and that was a welcome sight.
If Murray can convince himself that this is the way he needs to play, if he will commit and make up his mind to set the tempo in his matches and take the necessary calculated risks, his time will surely come at a major in 2012. He has worked hard to improve his forehand and make it more reliable while turning that shot into more of a weapon. His first serve is among the best in the sport, his second serve is less of a liability, and his two-handed backhand is right up there with Novak Djokovic’s at the top of the heap. He has the game to take command and win some majors; it all will depend now on his disposition, willpower and resilience.
Murray is in Shanghai this week, trying to defend his title, looking to maintain his high standards. He has captured 21 of his last 22 matches. He is riding on the crest of a wave of confidence. He is ready—or so it seems—to move to a new level in his development, to pursue his largest dreams, to realize his loftiest goals. He will be hard pressed to win again in Shanghai because this is his third week in a row of tournament competition. Each week the fields have been tougher, beginning with his triumph at the ATP 250 event in Bangkok, moving on last week to the ATP 500 event in Tokyo, and now shifting to an elite ATP 1000 tournament in China. His tough schedule might well catch up with him in Shanghai, and if he lets his guard down that would be understandable.
And yet, he is winning habitually these days, and that could carry him on through another tournament. With or without a tournament triumph in Shanghai— both Djokovic and Federer are skipping the event—Murray has a lot going for him these days. He has a very good chance to stay ahead of Federer in his bid to finish 2011 at No. 3 in the world. He has handed Nadal a painful loss; this was a seventh final round defeat in ten ATP World Tour finals for the world No. 2 this season. Meanwhile, Djokovic is nursing a bad back, and Federer is taking a much needed break until the end of this month after a disappointing season.
Murray may well be the most motivated of all the leading players as he moves purposefully toward the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London at the end of November. It is up to him to make the most of the end of this year and find the impetus for a sterling 2012. His boosters have every reason to be encouraged about Murray’s prospects, both in the short and long term.
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