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Steve Flink: Shanghai Triumph Lifts Murray to #3

10/17/2011 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

The end of the U.S. Open was a sobering time for Andy Murray, a moment when he could have easily fallen into a sea of self-pity and deep disillusionment. The 24-year-old had lost in a third consecutive semifinal at a Grand Slam event against Rafael Nadal. Another year had gone by without the British No. 1 securing a first career major title. All of his hard work had seemingly gone for naught. In years gone by, under the same circumstances, Murray might well have taken a mental vacation after the Open. He could have gone through the motions for the rest of 2011, gearing himself up gradually for the 2012 season, looking to simply win his share of matches across this autumn to remain fine-tuned, not demanding much of himself at the end of another long and debilitating campaign on the rigorous ATP World Tour.

That was how it could have been, but this is what has actually transpired: Murray has captured three tournament championships in a row, winning the ATP 250 event in Bangkok, following up with a triumph in Tokyo at the Rakuten Japan Open, and defending his Shanghai Rolex Masters crown yesterday to collect a second ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event in 2011. He won 14 consecutive matches in that remarkable span, raised his total of tournament victories in 2011 to five, and moved past none other than Roger Federer to No. 3 in the world in the new South African Airways ATP Rankings released today. To understand the size of that achievement, realize this: Federer had been ranked among the top three in the sport since the week after he won his first Wimbledon back in 2003; never since then—not even for a single week—had the Swiss stylist wandered out of that elite territory.

With his triumph in Shanghai, Murray demonstrated once more his underappreciated capacity to perform well in final round contests. He has now succeeded in 21 of 30 career finals on the ATP World Tour, including eight wins at the Masters 1000 tournaments, which are the most prestigious outside of the four majors. Three of those nine losses in finals were at the Grand Slam events, where Murray has not yet done himself justice. But his record everywhere else of 21-6 in title round matches is reflective of a man who knows how to perform under duress, of a player who has rare gifts and extraordinary match playing capabilities, of a champion who is surely going to get on the board at a major in the coming year.

To be sure, Murray had some good fortune in Shanghai. Competing three weeks in a row is never an easy task, but it gets more complicated when you have not faltered the previous two weeks. Murray was surely emotionally fatigued when he arrived in China, but the top eight seeds got opening round byes, which gave No. 2 seed Murray some extra recuperating time. Then his second round opponent Dmitry Tursunov defaulted. So Murray did not have to play a match until he met Stanislas Wawrinka in the third round. That was welcome relief for a competitor who needed the benefit of a less taxing schedule than expected.

Wawrinka made Murray work hard. Murray prevailed 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, but not before the determined Wawrinka rallied from 1-5 down in the opening set and 0-5 in the third. Murray conceded later that his legs were a bit weary after that rugged clash, but his next two assignments were quick and decisive. Murray took apart qualifier Mathew Ebden 6-3, 6-2, and then crushed Japan’s Kei Nishikori 6-2, 6-0 in 56 productive minutes. He had played only three matches en route to the final, and that left him fresh and eager to combat No. 3 seed David Ferrer in the championship match.

Ferrer had been pushed close to his limits all week long. The gritty Spaniard ousted Canada’s Milos Raonic 7-5, 7-6 (7) to earn a third round appointment with former world No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero. Ferrer nearly lost to his spirited countryman. The resourceful and clean hitting Ferrero took the first set swiftly and had three match points with Ferrer serving at 4-5 in the second set. On one of those match points, Ferrero got a short ball on his forehand. Had he approached up the line to the open court he would almost certainly have been shaking hands with his opponent moments later. But Ferrer correctly anticipated a crosscourt approach from Ferrero, lacing a forehand pass down the line for a winner. He won the match 1-6, 7-5, 6-2.

Next up for Ferrer in the quarterfinals was Andy Roddick, who had toppled the Spaniard in a four set, fourth round duel at the U.S. Open in their last showdown. Once again, the Spaniard came through in a battle that could well have gone either way. Ferrer squandered a 5-3 opening set tie-break lead against his American adversary, but found his return of serve range beautifully to make it one set all in a hurry, sweeping 16 of the last 19 points to get back on level terms.  Roddick had his chance at the outset of the third set. He had three break points in the first game, but missed a forehand return off a serve into his body, was off target with a running forehand that he should have made, and then committed a glaring unforced error, missing a routine shot into the net.

Ferrer gamely held on, and both players kept holding. Roddick saved a match point at 4-5 with an excellent kick second serve that was unmanageable for Ferrer. The two players landed in another tie-break. In that sequence, Roddick led 2-1 on serve, but never won another point. Ferrer was terrific in sweeping those last six points, putting away an overhead, acing the American, sending a low backhand pass at Roddick’s feet that was too good, and forcing Roddick into a forehand half volley error. That made it 5-2, and Roddick gave away the last two points with unforced errors off the backhand. Ferrer prevailed 6-7 (5), 6-2, 7-6 (2) as Roddick could not lift his game when it counted. Roddick’s passivity cost him dearly in that match, as it so often has over the last few years.

In the semifinals, Ferrer was in trouble again when he collided with his left-handed countryman Feliciano Lopez. Ferrer dropped the first set before taking that confrontation in three sets, with Lopez double faulting three times to lose his serve at 3-4 in the final set. Ferrer had clearly been through a considerable amount of wear and tear coming into the final. Furthermore, he had lost all four previous head to head meetings with Murray on hard courts, including a 6-3, 6-2 win for the British player the week before in Tokyo. Ferrer knew he would have to play probably the hard court match of his life to overcome Murray in Shanghai, but the 29-year-old was not going to sell himself short; his competiveness is something he wears like a badge of honor.

Ferrer had not been broken in his previous two matches against Roddick and Lopez, and in those matches he served as consistently and powerfully as he ever has. But Roddick and Lopez have never been known for their prowess on the return of serve. Murray is right up there behind Djokovic and alongside Nadal among the finest returners in tennis, and he underlined that point in the very first game of the match against Ferrer. That game featured five deuces and some top of the line rallies from both players, but Murray got the break in the end with strikingly accurate returns and his ability to read the Spaniard’s serve with uncanny regularity.

Murray advanced to 30-0 in the second game, poised to consolidate his break and take control of the set. But he eventually lost his serve when he netted a backhand down the line off a relatively high ball. It was 1-1, and Ferrer was temporarily off the hook. Both men settled into the match comfortably and confidently. Murray and Ferrer held easily from 1-1 until 3-3, when Ferrer found himself down 0-30. But he rescued himself ably there. An inside-out forehand drive volley winner and an unstoppable serve to the forehand lifted Ferrer back to 30-30. Ferrer then unleashed a scintillating backhand down the line winner for 40-30, and Murray missed a two-hander down the line. Just like that, Ferrer moved on to 4-3, keeping the pressure on his adversary.

Murray responded in kind. He held at 15 for 4-4, releasing an ace and a service winner in that game, and prevailing in an absorbing 24 stroke exchange. In the next two games, both men held at 15 to make it 5-5. But Murray sensed it was time to make his move and impose his will on an opponent who has never secured a Masters 1000 title. Murray made his experience count heavily here. Ferrer built a 30-0 lead in the eleventh game, but then missed a routine two-hander crosscourt. Ferrer’s apprehension was unmistakable. He drove an aggressive forehand into the net tape: 30-30. Then he netted a backhand tamely to fall behind break point. Aware that Murray’s second serve return is unassailable, a jittery Ferrer double faulted long.

Murray was right where he wanted to be, serving for the set at 6-5. He rolled to 30-0, lost the next point, and then released back-to-back aces, both down the T. Murray had the set after 56 difficult minutes, and he swiftly asserted himself at the start of the second set, breaking Ferrer at 30 in the opening game. But the next game was a regrettable one for Murray. From 15-0 at 1-1, he served consecutive double faults into the net. Ferrer broke back for 1-1. But Murray was not the least bit discouraged by that development. In the third game, he broke again, reaching 15-30 by outlasting his opponent in a 25 stroke exchange as Ferrer missed a forehand inside-in to trail 15-30. The Spaniard netted an easy overhead on the next point. At double break point, Murray showcased his perspicacity, sending a low backhand slice pass crosscourt, forcing Ferrer to play a volley that lacked pace. Murray got to that volley with no trouble, and rolled a topspin lob winner into a wide open space.

That was an irreparable blow to the Spaniard. Murray quickly held for 3-1, and twice reached break point in the fifth game. Ferrer saved himself with an un-returnable serve and an overhead winner. But Murray was serving too well by now. He held at love for 4-2, and then had two more break points for 5-2. Ferrer somehow fought his way out of that dark corner. On the first break point, Murray hit an outstanding two-handed backhand return deep crosscourt, and followed that shot in. Ferrer calmly struck a backhand passing shot winner sharply crosscourt. Ferrer erased the second break point with a service winner, and held on for 3-4. Murray was unperturbed. He started the next game with a double fault but then struck two more aces down the T for 30-15, and held on easily at 15 for 5-3. Two games later, serving for the match at 5-4, Murray trailed 15-30, but he was too good in the clutch. A service winner to the forehand made it 30-30. Another service winner wide to the forehand in the deuce court carried Murray to match point, and his first serve at that juncture set up an inside-out forehand that Ferrer could not counter at full stretch. Murray had won 7-5, 6-4, and it was plainly a title well deserved.

Coming into the tournament, most authorities anticipated a second straight Murray-Rafael Nadal final. Murray, of course, had played one of the great sets of his career in closing out Nadal the week before by scores of 3-6, 6-2, 6-0 in the final of Tokyo, losing only four points to the redoubtable Spaniard in the final set. Nadal was top seeded in Shanghai, but, in the third round, he confronted No. 15 seed Florian Mayer, who was ranked No. 23 in the world and not expected to provide much resistance to the Spaniard. But Mayer was dangerously uninhibited, performing with startling self-assurance and creativity, playing like a man who had absolutely nothing to lose. Mayer was keeping Nadal off guard and ill at ease throughout with his smart and persistent attacking on the fast hard courts, and the creativity of his game.

Mayer, a 28-year-old German, dropped only six points in six opening set service games and confounded Nadal with his tactics and spontaneity. At 4-5, Nadal was twice down set point on his serve. He saved the first with a spectacular point, sending a backhand pass down the line, making Mayer dive for the backhand volley. Mayer somehow got that ball back, but Nadal swooped in for a forehand pass into an open court. On the second set point for the German, Nadal was every bit as obstinate, refusing to concede anything. He won a 22 stroke rally when Mayer drove a backhand long on the run. Nadal held on for 5-5, and the set moved inevitably to a tie-break.

In that sequence, Nadal had only himself to blame. He was up 4-2, but netted a forehand passing shot as Mayer approached behind a crosscourt backhand. Mayer reached 4-4 with a typically audacious play. He served-and-volleyed to Nadal’s backhand, and pulled off a dazzling backhand volley winner. Mayer went ahead 5-4 when Nadal tried to run around his backhand to hit a forehand return off a second serve from the German. Nadal missed that shot badly, but got back to 5-5 by coming out on top in a 24 stroke rally after some astonishing defense kept him in that point. Serving at 5-5, Nadal went for an inside-out forehand but drove it wide. For Nadal to miss his best shot on such a big point was inconceivable.

Now serving at 6-5, standing improbably at set point, Mayer did not blink. He aced Nadal out wide in the Ad court. Set to the German. He never looked back. With Nadal serving at 3-3-30-30 in the second set, Mayer almost teased him into a mistake. Mayer had been hitting the ball remarkably hard, but then threw in a pronounced backhand slice. A stunned Nadal netted a slice backhand of his own. At break point, Mayer remained in his oddly relaxed state of mind. His running forehand down the line backed Nadal up. Mayer then approached off his two-hander crosscourt, and Nadal netted a forehand passing shot. Mayer was in the zone, and he would not leave it. At 4-3, 30-15, he aced Nadal and closed out that crucial game with another stunning serve-volley combination, moving around to hit an inside-out forehand first volley winner.

Serving to stay in the match, Nadal went to 30-0, but Mayer came at him freely again, cracking a flat two-handed backhand winner out of nowhere. Nadal was understandably shaken. He gave away the next point with a forehand unforced error. At 30-30, Mayer remained calmly crazed. He stepped in and belted a two-handed backhand winner down the line for match point. He followed up unhesitatingly, sealing his victory with a winning backhand passing shot down the line. Mayer had won 7-6 (5), 6-3 over the world No. 2. It was only the second time in 16 tournaments this year that Nadal had failed to reach at least the quarterfinals. He should have won the tie-break, but Mayer had played entirely out of his mind, coming forward with regularity, catching Nadal off guard with some astonishing backhand drop shots, missing surprisingly little from the backcourt. He came back to earth rapidly, losing a straight set match to Lopez in the quarters.

Murray will now reap the rewards of his hard work. He can take some much deserved time off before he prepares for the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. Although Murray holds only a slim lead over Federer in the South African Airways official ATP World Tour Rankings that count results from the previous 52 weeks, the 24-year-old has opened up a much wider lead over the Swiss in the Year-to-Date Rankings for 2011. He has pulled ahead of Federer by more than 2000 points in that race. So it will be next to impossible for Federer to prevent Murray from finishing the year in the No. 3 spot. Murray knows full well that he can’t stop there, that he must find a way to beat the best of his rivals on the biggest occasions, that only when he wins majors will he raise his historical stock to the lofty level where he belongs. The last three weeks have done him no harm as he attempts to conclude 2011 triumphantly and then make 2012 the greatest season of his career.

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