Well, how do we interpret that first encounter since Shanghai? With difficulty.
One player seemed determined to relax, to test out a few shots, try a few things, and take a look at the opposition. The other seemed to take it all rather more seriously, understanding perhaps that this would be a useful early statement of intent, and current form, for the imminent first Slam of the season.
The unexpected bit is that it was Murray who seemed intent on laying down the marker in the run-up to the first ATP tournament, and Federer who treated this exhibition event as a lightweight warm-up that didn’t even warrant the removal of his Rolex.
I don’t know whether to feel relaxed or worried. But, hearing his post match comment, repeated on his website, I veer to the latter. To express the hope that you have “another terrible season in which you win one Slam” hardly puts the fear of God into your opponents.
OK, it was sarcastic, or at the very least mischievous. But, following on from a performance that you don’t seem to take too seriously, it could be interpreted as "if I don’t set my targets too high, I can’t be taken to task if I don’t win."
Now, I don’t think this was his intention. I think it was a slightly awry attempt to deflect the media from picking at his ranking, form, and plans. If you don’t give them a target to shoot at, they can’t hit you so easily.
He played this match in the same way. He tried out his shots, assessed his fitness, and probed his opponent without pushing 100 percent for a win. And he hit some fantastic winners, played some fluid and perfectly-executed rallies, got straight into aggressive, attacking mode, which are all good signs.
It’s interesting, though, that both Murray, and then Nadal in the following match, chose to push the envelope to ensure wins against key opponents before the season gets under way for real.
Federer was undoubtedly surprised, and hurt, by the eagerness of the press to predict his demise during 2008. The role that his health at the beginning of the year played in his less-than-perfect results was all but ignored until after the US Open. Then the pundits returned, like a boomerang, to his feet. I hope his approach to this event doesn’t give them ammunition to start questioning his commitment again.
He looked very trim, loose, and healthy out there, fired loads of wild shots and smiled about it. To his fans, that holds its own pleasure. But, don’t for a minute think what lays ahead doesn’t matter to him. Only that he has learned a hard lesson about who he can trust, and has the protective shell in place to defend himself this time.
And Murray? He's keen to repeat his victory over the player he admires most where it really counts: At the first Grand Slam.
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