Sunday, January 31, 2010

Australian Open Final: What a Difference a Year Makes

One year ago, Roger Federer was standing in a puddle of tears on Rod Laver Arena after have been bested once again by Rafael Nadal. With his throne of power having been chiseled away over time by the Spaniard, it was easy to write King Roger's epitaph -- at least in pencil -- as the lead actor in the ATP tour's drama.

What a difference a year makes. Now, Roger Federer is willing to take on the entire world... again.

After that January '09 night in Melbourne, all Federer did was reach the finals at all three of the season's remaining slams, win his first Roland Garros title, reclaim the Wimbledon seat of power in yet another classic final while also passing Pete Sampras on the all-time slam champions list, and narrowly miss winning another U.S. Open en route to ending the season as the #1-ranked player in the world. Oh, yeah... and he got married and became the father of twin daughters, too. It was quite a year.

After what Federer did to Andy Murray in the Australian Open men's final on Sunday night, 2010 hasn't gotten off to a shabby start, either.

According to some, in a sentiment surely hoped for by the Scot, this final was supposed to be when everything changed for Murray. It was the start of "something big." After all, he was 22 years of age and in his seventeenth grand slam -- the precise combination that Federer brought to the table when he won HIS first slam title at Wimbledon in 2003. Problem is, Murray isn't Federer. Not yet, if ever.

Federer made no bones about reminding him of that, either. Mere minutes after he'd advanced past Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the semifinals to reach the men's final, Federer was deftly spinning his unique brand of "gentlemanly" (but not-so-subtle) digs against his next opponent, noting how while Murray might have a winning career record against him (6-4 going into Sunday) he hadn't managed to take him out in a major. While Federer himself was the all-time men's slam title leader, with fifteen championships under his belt, Murray had still yet to notch his first. Winning the 1st set was important for Murray, the Swiss Mister noted... for his confidence. If he lost it, he might just realize how Everest-like the climb would be to reach the Australian Open summit at Federer's expense.

Murray Mount would do him no good in Melbourne.

Maybe Murray was listening. For while he's been hailed for years now as the man who'll finally erase the phrase "no British man has won a slam crown since Fred Perry in 1936" from the sport's lexicon, he's still yet to come through with the goods when it's mattered. Not only that, his "Generation Andy" counterparts Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro have managed to lift slam title before him (del Potro even defeated Federer to do it in New York last summer), Tsonga and Marin Cilic are breathing down the Scot's neck, and even the tour's OTHER Andy -- Roddick -- came closer to claiming a second major at last year's Wimbledon than Murray himself has come to just one.

Still, on the opening point of the opening game of the opening set of the final, Murray LOOKED like he was ready to assume his overdue place in the slam winner's circle. Displaying the aggressive in-point mindset that is so often absent from this game, he hit a backhand winner down the line to take a 15/love lead. He'd effectively never again be in the lead in the match, as Federer held serve and established the leader/follower roles that neither would ever fully relinquish in the contest.

Murray was broken in his first service game. He retrieved the break in the very next game, but the victory failed to remove the obvious tension from his body and actions. Federer saved three break points to hold and take a 3-2 lead, then broke Murray's serve again to go up 5-3. While his opponent's serve numbers were poor (a 45% first serve percentage), Federer wasn't hindered. He served out the set at 6-3. Was the advantage as important to Murray as Federer theorized it was? Well, maybe, as he proceeded to carry his roll into the 2nd. There, he broke Murray yet again to take a 2-1 lead, then seized upon the Scot's passive play, which continued even though he did have multiple in-point opportunities to seize an advantage. When Federer took a 3-1 lead, he'd won twelve of the previous fifteen points, and even put together at least one of the classic points of old that saw him drag Murray from one side of the court to the other, like a puppet on a string, before putting away a winner as if the whole thing was mere child's play.

Murray momentarily stemmed the Federer tide by saving two break points and holding for 2-3, then dug out of a love/40 to hold serve again for 3-4. But Federer's own easy hold (with two aces and a simple volley) to take a 5-3 lead was soon followed up by a routine game that enabled him to serve out the set at 6-4 to go up two sets to none. In his previous 155 slam matches in which he'd won the first two sets, Federer was 155-0.

But, to his credit, Murray didn't go into the fetal position and pray for the madness to end.

Instead, after playing his usual mostly passive, wait-for-the-mistake style of game for two sets after having started the match with an aggressive point, with nothing left to lose, Murray returned to his opening point mindset in the 3rd set. In the end, it would at least allow him room to one day be able to attempt to convince himself that HE was to blame for his ultimate defeat in the match, as his results against Federer greatly improved, but it was a tactic that came to the fore not only far too late, but it even managed to be far too little to extend the match beyond a minimal three-set limit.

Even while occasionally grabbing his right leg and seeming to slightly hobble from one spot to another, Murray finally put pressure on Federer's game. Moving forward more often and going for winners rather than rally-continuing returns, Murray went up 40/love on Federer's serve in the sixth game of the set. After winning a face-to-face exchange at the net, he broke to take a 4-2 lead. In the next game, he blasted a running crosscourt forehand winner. Serving at 5-3, Murray was within reach of making a match of things. But Federer got the service break in game #9 and the pair were soon in a tie -break.

Taken on it's own, the tie-break would border on being a classic. If it'd taken place in the 5th set of the U.S. Open, it'd been fated to be replayed for a generation. Instead, it'll turn out to be lost gem that hints at what Murray is CAPABLE of, but also highlight why he has yet to live up to his advance billing in the slams.

Murray grabbed an early 3-1 lead, but a backhand error immediately donated the mini-break he'd earned. More backhand errors allowed Federer to move ahead at 4-3, only to see Murray surge back to 6-4 and entertain his first set point. After failing to convert it, rather than push the match to the 4th with a winner, Murray netted a relatively open forehand down the line on SP #2. On SP #3 at 7-6, he missed a volley. It was then Federer's turn to surge back.

Federer's ace for 8-7 gave him his first match point, which he only narrowly missed smacking down the line with a passing shot by Murray, whose crowding of the net had given Federer only a sliver of open space through which to slide the potentially championship-winning shot. Soon after, following a Federer backhand that failed to clear the net, Murray's fourth set point was squandered when his lob attempt carried past the baseline. 9-9. Federer's drop volley have him his second match point, but Murray wonderfully saved it when he showcased his great speed by scrambling to reach a poor-choice Federer drop shot and flicking a half volley winner into the back court to knot the tie-break at 10-10.

As the tension mounted, Federer's netted forehand gave Murray a fifth set point, but the world #1's big serve bailed him out and kept alive his hopes of closing things out in the tie-break. After wrongfooting Murray with a deep shot to gain a third match point, the twenty-minute tie-break finally ended when the Scot's backhand failed to make it over the net. In a tie-break that deserved more importance than it ultimately held, Federer won 13-11.

In 2:41, Federer def. Murray 6-3/6-4/7-6(11).

If Murray had managed to employ the same aggressive tactics he used in the 3rd set from the start (as he did in the QF vs. Rafael Nadal), this might have been a different match. If, if, if, if, if. That's why some players win slams by the trophy case-full, while others never do. Even while playing the way he SHOULD have been the previous two hours, Murray still managed to fail to convert the five set points he had in the 3rd and force Federer to play a 4th set. The Scot has now lost both his career slam finals in straight sets, joining Cedric Pioline as the only other player to do so in his first two career appearances in slam finals.

"You're too good to never win a slam. Don't worry about it." - Federer, to Murray, in the post-match ceremony

Thus, Federer, firmly entrenched once again in the #1 ranking (he's just a few months away from breaking Sampras' record for total weeks in the position), proves yet again that the tennis nation has not yet been declared "no country for old men," even in a neighborhood where a 28-year old man can be considered "old." If del Potro's U.S. Open win -- which made him the only man other than Nadal to defeat Fed in his now 22 slam finals -- ushered in the "Federer vs. the World" aspect of the back half of his Hall of Fame career, then consider the 2010 scoreline to read, "Federer 1, World 0."

Thing is, after Federer took the match away from a faltering Nikolay Davydenko in the QF after the Russian had dominated the contest for the first set-plus, he often resembled the renowned Federer of old. He schooled Davydenko for nearly two lightning-fast sets like he so often used to Lleyton Hewitt in the "glory years." After how he seemed to out-psyche Murray on the big stage, could we be at the start of a second "Golden Age of Roger?" With sixteen slams, might the new number to keep an eye on be twenty-four? As in Margaret Court's all-time professional tennis record for career slam wins. Remember, Andre Agassi reached a slam singles final (losing to Federer, naturally) at age 35, even with back problems. Federer is still seven years away from his mid-thirties.

"I can cry like Roger. It's a shame I can't play like him." - Murray, after choking up during his post-match address to the crowd

Just look at the field at the moment. While his contemporary rivals are battling injuries, and the younger contenders have yet to prove themselves worthy for the long haul, Federer, after having survived a few slow periods in recent seasons, keeps on going. Nadal (now at #4 in the rankings) has a small tear in his knee and will be absent for at least a month (a disappearing act that might happen more than once this season, if his out-of-the-blue re-injury in Melbourne is any indication). Djovokic once again was bounced from Oz with "mysterious" stomach issues. Davydenko, for all his good points, just isn't a Ready-For-Prime-Time player. Roddick's last best slam shot might have come in that 16-14 5th set at SW19 last year (and niggling injuries are cropping up more and more often where he's concerned, too). Murray failed to step up his game in time here. Heck, even Hewitt, long since bypassed as a slam threat, is having another hip surgery... further stressing the miraculousness of Federer's mostly injury-free career. Del Potro is so far the only player without a demerit when it comes to consistently challenging Federer's leading role, but even the Argentine hasn't yet been able to stay healthy and play at his U.S. Open level for an entire season.

With his confidence restored, the possible slow-motion fade of the Nadal threat that is really the only chink in his "Greatest of All Time" armor, and the removal of the pressure of the Sampras Chase and all the off-court familial "distractions" that took place in '09, Federer might be uniquely positioned to have a "career-year" in what is already one of the greatest careers ever. A season ago, he came within two five-set defeats of pulling off a calendar year Grand Slam. Might 2010 offer the chance to fill in the only remaining blank in his all-timer resume?

Come one. Come all. Mister Federer is accepting challenges again. Everyone is free to apply for the honor.

......I doubt that adidas was all that thrilled with ESPN2's close-ups of Murray's feet as he was walking around the court with a hole worn in the toe of his shoe. Great shot, though.

...what exactly was ESPN2's fascination with the group in Murray's box, anyway? Over the years, we've come to expect many shots of the friends box during matches, but what happened during the men's final was ridiculous. It was hard to tell if the main attraction was supposed to be the MATCH or the reaction TO THE MATCH by Murray's backers. Really, was it absolutely necessary to show slow-motion REPLAYS of the group's reactions to shots, including TWO different shots following one of the points in the tie-break?

If I have to see Murray's mum, in her tiny glasses, clench her fist and give her son encouragement once more it'll one time too many.

24...Margaret Smith-Court, AUS
22...Steffi Graf, GER
19...Helen Wills-Moody, USA
18...Martina Navratilova, CZE/USA
18...Chris Evert, USA
14...Pete Sampras, USA

16...Roger Federer, SUI ('10 AO Singles W)
15...Bob Bryan, USA ('10 AO Doubles W)
13...Leander Paes, IND ('10 AO Mixed W)
11...Mike Bryan, USA ('10 AO Doubles W)
11...Mahesh Bhupathi, IND

109...Jimmy Connors, USA
94...Ivan Lendl, CZE
77...John McEnroe, USA
64...Pete Sampras, USA
63...Bjorn Borg, SWE
62...Guillermo Vilas, ARG
60...Andre Agassi, USA

61...Todd Woodbridge & Mark Woodforde
57...Peter Fleming & John McEnroe
57...Bob Hewitt & Frew McMillian

[as of February 1, 2010]
286...Pete Sampras, USA
270...Ivan Lendl, CZE
268...Jimmy Connors, USA
170...John McEnroe, USA
109...Bjorn Borg, SWE
101...Andre Agassi, USA

6...Roy Emerson
4...Andre Agassi
4...Jack Crawford
4...Ken Rosewall
4...Pat Wood
3...Rod Laver
3...Adrian Quist
3...Mats Wilander

[overall: 16-6]
4-0...Andy Roddick
2-5...Rafael Nadal
1-0...Andre Agassi
1-0...Marcos Baghdatis
1-0...Novak Djokovic
1-0...Fernando Gonzalez
1-0...Leyton Hewitt
1-0...Mark Philippoussis
1-0...Marat Safin
1-0...Robin Soderling
0-1...Juan Martin del Potro

#1 Roger Federer/SUI def. #5 Andy Murray/GBR 6-3/6-4/7-6

#1 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) def. #2 Nestor/Zimonjic (CAN/SRB) 6-3/6-7/6-3

#1 Paes/Black (IND/ZIM) def. Levinsky/Makarova (CZE/RUS) 7-5/6-3

#14 Tiago Fernandes/BRA def. Sean Berman/AUS 7-5/6-3

Eleveld/Lupescu (NED/NED) def.. #2 Krawietz/Schulz (GER/GER) 6-4/6-4

All for now.

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