Will a Focused Murray Deny an Impatient Federer at the Australian Open?

Marianne BevisSenior Writer IJanuary 9, 2009

The first full week of 2009 brings the first points on the ATP tour. The players have spread their favours across three widely differing countries: and the biggest names have selected Brisbane and Doha. We have northern versus southern hemispheres, cold and dry versus hot and humid, Arabian culture in contrast with one of the most laid back countries in the world. And we have the best ever against the crown prince.

It was always going to be fascinating – who would bring their good form early into the year? Who would look confident, fit and healthy? Who would end as favourite for the Australian Open?

I’ve talked in recent weeks about the top four: about Nadal’s knees; Federer’s form; Djokovic in general. And I highlighted, in particular, Andy Murray’s performances, potential, passion and promise. That last bit at least is now beyond question. He has shown no weakness (other than a brief hiatus to have his back adjusted), no loss of focus, no compassion. He’s simply shown that he has come of age and has to be a strong favourite for Melbourne.

Let’s take a quick backward look, though, in order to make predictions. Djokovic went out early in Brisbane, and one must question his decision to play so little thus far. He’s wise to take the wild-card for Sydney next week. We may get a better picture of where his preparation is after that. Until then, he remains an unknown quantity in the pack, though certainly not a convincing prospect.

Davydenko is out with injury – but was unlikely to trouble the big players. Roddick has clearly prepared well, is up for the challenge and has something to prove. His 2008 season was less than glowing when you consider his ambitions at its beginning, and he is running out of time to really make an impact. I, for one, wish him well.

Nadal has been looking solid, his knees sound, and his kit iffy. He raced past lowly—seeded Santoro and the even more lowly-seeded Beck, but Monfils posed a problem—he can pose a problem to anyone on his day.

Even so, Nadal is not entirely convincing yet, and his ambition to make the latter stages of a hard-court Grand Slam is not a sure-fire conclusion. He still needs to grow into his “No1” skin and that may take a little longer, but it’s hard to judge when he’s not played Federer or Djokovic for so long. His chances against Murray—should he meet him at Melbourne—are very, very slim.

So we come to the crux of the argument—if there is any argument to be had. Can Federer win against Murray any more? He was so close in Shanghai, carrying sickness and injury, that the answer, to this highly biased spectator, was yes. Until today.

Federer had the roughest draw in terms of the ranking of his opponents, but he had no trouble. He had poor scheduling, drawing the short-straw of the evening session every day. Murray commented on playing at night: "It’s tough when the sun goes down. It becomes windy. When the sun is out, the balls are pretty fast but when it goes down, your body becomes a little stiff and balls become heavy too.”

Doha certainly did not serve up Federer’s favourite conditions. He loves the Middle East: the high temperatures, the fast balls. Yet he was faced with crowds wrapped in scarves, hats, hoods and blankets. In the first match—easy win as it was—he wrapped himself in his towel during end-changes and all the way back to the baseline. 

However, he played solid tennis, and was hitting the backhand well. Has he practised that especially to counter the Murray-and-Nadal attack to that quarter? Good tactics from the still manager-less Federer.

His quarter-final against Kohlschreiber was a treat, full of beautiful shot-making. It was a match of unusual beauty, both men playing the elegant single-handed backhand. My favourite tennis shot? Probably.

There was ferocious hitting on both sides, bullet-loud, interspersed with drop shots, lobs and volleys. There was lots of running; testing and taxing tennis. It was good to watch a game played at a continuous and up-tempo pace, with not a minute wasted, the old-fashioned way.

Federer was sharp, aggressive, determined. He wanted the match over quickly and was irritated by his mistakes, growling at himself more and more as the match headed to a second set tie-break. We witnessed again the now-common feature of his game slipping into loose, casual-looking shots that allow a winning lead to be whittled away.

It happened in Shanghai—with justification on that occasion. Here, there is no excuse except irritability, loss of concentration, cold conditions. Look at it another way: there is no excuse. And against Murray, he pays the price.
Let’s turn then to the Murray performance. He had a reasonable draw and, as a Scot, was not fazed by the cold! And how confident he looked. Even in adversity, there was no hint of self-doubt. Words are exchanged with the umpire in his quarter-final match, but it distracts him not one iota. If anything, he is more focused – as you expect from a champion.

I can talk again about the less-than-elegant stroke-play, the slightly pigeon-toed movement, the baggy shorts. They become irrelevant. He has reached a mind-set, a physical strength, a level of shot-making that give him utter belief in his ability to win.

Think about it. He has now beaten Federer four times in succession. He has beaten Nadal twice on the bounce. He beat Djokovic in their last encounter. Interestingly, it is only Federer who has come close to resisting, but after today’s encounter, his ability to do so seems to be declining.

I don’t think this is due, certainly not in a large part, to a diminishing of his game or his physical prowess. There is an impatience, an irritation and short-temperedness in his play on a more regular basis. It was a dominant feature of this semi, and he was irritable, too, against Kohlschreiber.

He made a revealing comment at the post-Abu Dhabi press conference: “I have realised that I will win some and lose some. As long as I enjoy the games, I don’t mind the losses. But I surely want to win the big games. I am not going to chase titles or records as badly as I was last year.” Maybe he simply isn’t as driven as he used to be—or as driven as Murray is. Will he be able to get his composure and focus back before the “big game” in Melbourne? At the very least, will he find enjoyment there?

So to the predictions. Given that we’ve not really seen Djokovic; given that Nadal has not quite come out with all guns blazing; and given that Federer is the closest thing to tennis perfection on the planet and yet is still on the losing side against Murray; the sensible money has to be on my fellow-Brit.

I find making such a prediction almost unbearable. I adore Federer’s game above any other—always will. But the pride I have in seeing a British man soar to this level makes it almost OK.