Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Turning Points

Andy Murray doesn't care much for putting his opponents out of their misery. Instead he prefers giving them enough rope to hang themselves with - that way he can run circles around them and wait for them to do the job themselves.

It's been an effective style for Murray to date, albeit one that is under constant criticism from the talking heads of tennis. The 22-year-old Scot has ascended to a perch as high as No. 2 in the world (currently No. 3), but all the while he's had to listen to critics telling him he needed to be more aggressive.

Forget the rope, they've been telling him, and go with the guns blazing.

After last nights debasing defeat at the hands of Roger Federer, critics are clamoring again. Nobody in their right mind can fault someone for losing to Roger Federer, but they can and they will fault you for the way you approach the match strategically. And rightfully so.

Murray himself seemed to realize the error of his ways, as he talked about his second straight-set defeat in two tries in Grand-Slam finals against Federer. "The third set was a lot better," he said. "I think it (my strategy) was right for some parts of the match and wrong for others."

When asked what part of the match he'd do over if he could, he lamented some more. "I probably would have gone with a bigger forehand at 2-all in the first set when I had a break point. He mishit a forehand and I hit a high topspin forehand to his backhand and made a long rally after that. I probably would have gone back for a bigger forehand at that stage, but you know, it's a lot easier to say when you look back."

If, as we believe, admitting your faults is your first step towards recovery, then Murray will be that much better off if he finds himself in another Grand-Slam final. It may have taken him two disappointing finals to get the message but Murray clearly understands now that he needed to play bigger tennis to get results against Federer.

As Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal have proven in past Grand-Slam finals, the only possible way to get past Federer is put him under siege. As Patrick McEnroe so aptly put it, during ESPN's broadcast of the match, "he (Murray) is trying to out-Federer Federer from a strategic standpoint, and that's just not working."

But there was more to Murray's failure last night than just going for bigger shots.

What was missing, more than anything from Murray's game, was his ability to capitalize at crucial junctures of the match with his serve. After getting broken in his first service game of the match, Murray was never able to get his serving rhythm on track, and there isn't a more surefire recipe for big match disaster than that. While Federer was using his serve to get him out of trouble (a service winner on break point in the 5th game of the 1st set, and back-to-back aces to finish off that game) Murray finished the set at 45 percent, and won a dismal 4 out of 12 points on his second serve. When Murray served at 4-4, he again wilted and was broken easily, giving Federer a shot to serve out the set. Not surprisingly, he held easily.

In the third game of the 2nd set he was broken at love, and at that point Murray found the rope that he usually gives his opponents dangling around his own neck.

To his credit Murray pulled himself together in the 3rd set, playing decisively, hitting big, and serving boldly and with much better accuracy. But even with the 5 set points that all that hard work earned him, he couldn't make good on the biggest of points.

So the questions surrounding Murray's viability as a Grand-Slam contender aren't only about his passive nature - the bigger question might be about his ability to come through in the clutch.

He's obviously had success against Federer in the past, but it sure didn't look like it last night, when the stakes were considerably higher than they were in Indian Wells or Doha in 2009.

Many feel that if Murray committed to a more offensive strategy he would have had much more success last night. But the fact of the matter is, no matter how good your strategy is, you have to have the confidence to execute it. Federer, who for all intents and purposes played the perfect match last night, still faced many trying moments where he was forced into gut-check mode.

In other words, the Swiss maestro had to do more than simply choose the right strategy - he had to take care of business under pressure. After a letdown in the third set, he was faced with the real and existing possibility of handing over the momentum to Murray. He refused to let it happen and there is no other way to explain it. There is a different kind of talent that takes you through these rocky roads without losing a wheel, and that talent helped Federer fight off 5 set points and overcame the disappointment of failing on 2 match points of his own.

It is clear that Andy Murray has the physical and mental ability to make another run at a Grand-Slam title - maybe more - over the course of the next few seasons. He's a gifted athlete who has shown the capacity to make great strides in small periods of time. He's a master of court geometry and a fitness guru. He's got a serious chip on his shoulder and he's proven that he can be as good or better than anyone on any given Sunday.

But no matter what strategy Murray seeks to employ, he'll have to understand instinctively that a more valuable commodity than the tactics are the nerves of steel to flawlessly execute them.

He'll have to learn how to turn points into turning points, and whether he likes it or not, he'll have to do it with the weight of Great Britain's expectations sitting squarely on his shoulders.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Planet Serena Vs. Planet Henin

They are orbited by many aspiring champions, these two. But they are not equalled by many - maybe none - in their era. They are each giant entities unto themselves, relentlessly searching for and creating their own mythical tennis lore. They are each icons. Serena and Justine. One known for power and moxie, the other for finesse and intensity.

They are so different in so many ways, yet so alike in the one. Fittingly it is the one similar element in both of them - their desire for greatness - that draws them together. This desire puts them perpetually on a collision course. Each with a burning fire in their belly that drives them to this frantic and unyielding quest for glory. At first glance so different, they are elementally the same.

They are mercurial and they are cool calculators of the intangibles. They are hell-bent to win and shamelessly pursue the means to do so. They think like winners, therefore they are winners. They want never to lose, therefore they rarely do.

While the Azarenka's, Petrova's, and Kuznetsova's of the world - the orbiters of these two fiery planets, so to speak - are condemned to perpetual orbit, Serena Williams and Justine Henin are readying to meet in THE DREAM FINAL this evening at Rod Laver Arena. This one, my friends, will not be for the squeamish.

There are 18 Grand-Slam finals collectively between Serena Williams and Justine Henin, but today will mark the first time they have ever met in the final of a Slam.

Serena Williams- She of 11 Grand-Slam singles titles - stubbornly plowing through the doubles with her sister, wearing so much wrapping on her legs that she looks like a mummy.

Justine Henin - She of 7 Grand-Slams and 117 weeks at No. 1 - as intense as ever, but more immune to the pressure, thanks to all the soul-searching.

As tempting as it is to go back and analyse their 13 head-to-head meetings, it's really not necessary. It's plain to see that this final is about the here and now. In the future when we go back and delve into their storied pasts, today might very well be the day we point to and say "this is where it all turned for her."

Who will be her?

This one is in a class all by itself. It'll be their first Grand-Slam final and that fact immediately makes it their biggest match.

All these years it has been building to this sure-to-be knock-down drag-out climax. Two massive planets - each fixated on destruction of all threats to their own security - aiming straight towards one another. As good as each woman is at separating the winning and losing from their self image, whoever loses this one is going to feel some sting.

We didn't know it then, but ever since their first meeting, at the 2001 U.S. Open's 4th round, this is where this rivalry has been heading.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Calm Storm

There isn’t a more polarizing figure in tennis - maybe all of sports - than Serena Williams. Some people love to love Serena and some people love to hate her. Some love the way she plays but hate the way she acts. Others hate the way she behaves when she plays but love the way she makes no apologies for it (unless she absolutely has to - see 2009 U.S. Open). Some want her to keep winning so she can take her place among the Martina’s, Steffi’s, and Chrissie’s as one of the all-time greats of the Open Era, while others want her to fall flat on her face so she will be forever be known as someone who didn’t make the most of her enormous abilities.

For a brief period of time, yesterday’s match against Victoria Azarenka gave hope to the haters (You know who you are). Eventually, the match ended up providing us with more irrefutable proof that Serena does indeed belong on a pedestal with other former legends of the game.

But the day didn’t start gloriously for Serena. She was down a set and two breaks (4-0) and was getting absolutely hammered by the feisty Belarusian‘s penetrating ground strokes. Those who know Serena, know that she is capable of rescuing herself from the deepest depths of despair, but the hole that Azarenka was digging for Serena was starting to look more like a bottomless pit.

It’s over, we thought. Stick a fork in her, added the haters. She’s getting what she deserves, continued the haters, because of that outburst in New York last summer.

But it wasn’t over. In fact, it was just beginning - and, remarkable as it may seem, it started with the look on her face. It was that hell-hath-no-fury look that Serena sports when she really needs to get some business taken care of. It is a look that contains no consternation, fear, anxiety, or anger. No, those would be the looks of lesser women. Serena - no stranger to negative emotions on the court - instinctively knew that there was no place for panic when it came to the monumental task at hand. This look was different and we all saw it. It was a look of calm. Perhaps you could call it menacing calm - and it didn’t bode well for Azarenka.

It was a look of calm that brought to mind those Indians who walk through fire without ever exchanging the expression on their faces.

It was a look of calm that elicited imagery of stoics laying down on beds of nails and resting peacefully ’til morning.

At the drop of a hat Serena had transformed herself into a pillar of belief. She had become an immovable vessel of concentration that had anchored herself to her singular desire to win. After winning a few games it was apparent that nothing was going to stop her from winning this match.

It was a look that brought forth the fire in her belly, the quickness of her feet, the purpose of her serve - which had all been previously missing up until that point. It was a look that told her opponent that she would have to walk through that same fire if she really wanted to take the match.

All of us who have ever stepped onto a tennis court wish we could do what Serena did yesterday. How is it possible to play perfect tennis just because you’ve decided you want to? For most of us, recreational players and Grand-Slam winners alike, it isn’t.

But for Serena the link between desire and tennis is as pure a relationship as we have ever seen.

It starts with a look, and ends with a win.