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.


  1. Really good post.
    Just wanna add, that saying you need to play more aggressively and actually doing it are two different things. Muzz plays a very defensive game, it's his style. He can't necessarily just magically change the way he plays because people tell him too. Murray can't hit winners like Fed, delPo, and say, Cilic can. It's not his game. It's like telling Cilic he needs to push more. It's easy to say it, but if it isn't your game, it isn't your game. If it were as easy as just thinking it, everyone would have sixteen Slams and be world number one.

  2. Yeah, great post. You're spot on with your analysis. :)

  3. I totally agree with you. But as kaitepai said it's impossible for someone to change his style overnight. He will need to work on it and through the years maybe achieve it. Look at Nadal, he used to play 5 meters behind the baseline and now he is hitting on hard courts from inside the baseline. He worked at it over the years.
    If you're interested in tennis there is an innovative website with a great Tennis Forum and many
    Tennis Matches dating from the 70's till 2010.


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