Awesome Tennis from Murray and Nadal Announce Their Intent for 2009

Marianne BevisSenior Writer IJanuary 3, 2009

So Andy Murray has truly thrown down the gauntlet to the rest of the field in taking on, and beating, Rafael Nadal just a day after meting out the same punishment to Roger Federer.

And don’t be deceived into thinking this was just an exhibition encounter. Unlike Murray’s semi against an opponent who didn’t seem to be taking this event wholly seriously, his challenger in the Abu Dhabi final really wanted the win.

The looks and the demeanour of both men have changed since their last match in the US Open, and sent out some interesting signals of intent for the year.

Nadal’s much heralded change of kit, postponed from that Flushing Meadow encounter, was launched with the aim, it would seem, of announcing a more grown-up, serious champion.

The sleeveless shirt has been replaced by a standard polo, the pirate pants by straight-forward shorts. The colours are your everyday sports-store white with canary-yellow and blue horizontal bands...ordinary except, strangely, for the meanness of the cut.

The shoulders are a little too narrow, the sleeves a fraction short and tight and the shorts themselves have a slight, rather disconcerting, translucence.

The facial expression has become a little more sober, and the hair a fraction shorter. However, he doesn’t look quite comfortable with the image.

Murray, too, has smartened up, wearing a refreshing white strip in contrast with the colour-draining grey of last year.

The hair is cropped and neat, the jaw clean-shaven and the expression calm and confident. He seems entirely comfortable in his kit and his skin.

The shot-making in this match on both sides is terrific, and Nadal has continued to improve many areas of his game. The huge swinging serve is getting more punishing by the month and the volleying continues to sharpen.

He is using the drop shot more often and more accurately and it goes without saying that he plays hard and aggressively.

What the world wants to know, though, is how the knees are holding up. The answer, they are still strapped but apparently working well. The fingers, too, are heavily taped: blisters derived from blistering drives.

He played some searing cross-court inside outs, very reminiscent of Federer’s favourite shot and played at times with similar angle and pace.

But Murray’s game continues to develop in leaps and bounds, his backhand in particular. Time and time again, he produces a cross-court backhand drive that leaves his opponents (both Nadal today and Federer yesterday) motionless.

He is serving more aces, is reaching the net faster and with more frequency. He is routinely using the classic tactic of driving wide to backhand and then to forehand until his opponent is run into the ground. It is impressive.

His most outstanding gift, though, is not something that can be easily taught or learned: his hands are quick, flexible, and have remarkable touch.

Murray’s posture and movement will never be graceful like Federer’s; his limbs seem to flail during shot-making and he often looks slightly off balance. He will never have the swagger of Nadal; his shoulders are naturally a little rounded, his walk slightly pigeon-toed.

But his tennis does all the talking and, on the evidence of this warm-up event, he is already working on an image to match his stature.

Nadal may take a while to slip into his No. 1 image more comfortably. He may also have to work even harder than he already does to maintain his No. 1 ranking if Murray continues to improve.

And what of No. 2 and No. 3? Federer, judging from the continued use of his inelegant kit from 2008, has not yet moved completely into 2009 mode.

Djokovic is still invisible and remains the biggest unknown in the equation.

However, the two of them will need to be fighting fit, highly focused and full of self-belief to sustain their challenges in the company of both Nadal and Murray when the ATP race begins in earnest next week.