If you picked Andy Murray to defeat Roger Federer in straight sets in the gold-medal match at the 2012 Olympics in London on Sunday, count yourself as very knowledgeable in the sport of men's singles tennis. That, or count yourself very lucky.
If you are anything like me, having played and coached the game at an amateur level and watched Grand Slam tennis avidly since childhood, the men's singles gold-medal results came as a bit of a shock. My own expectation was that if anyone cruised to a straight sets victory, it would be the Swiss Maestro.
A new or casual tennis fan might have glanced at the 8-8 overall record between Roger Federer and Andy Murray and surmised that Murray had at least a 50-percent chance of winning the gold medal on Centre Court on Sunday. However, a closer look at those 16 matches reveals that Federer was 3-0 against Murray in Grand Slam matches, and 1-0 on grass. Short story, it seemed when the stage got bigger, Federer prevailed.
That's not to mention the fact that Roger Federer is considered by many to be the greatest tennis player ever to walk the face of the earth. And to that same "many," walk might be an understatement. In most written and spoken descriptions of Federer's movement, one might conclude that Federer levitates from place to place, rather than waste shoe tread pounding two feet on the ground like the rest of us.
Throw in the fact that just over a month ago, on the very same court, Federer beat Murray in four relatively drama-free sets to claim his seventh Wimbledon title. Why would there have been any reason to believe this outcome would be any different?
SW19, the postal code of Wimbledon and common nickname, is as much Federer's house as that trophy warehouse he calls a home back in Switzerland.
Centre Court, aside from his lone loss in the finals against Nadal in 2008, is typically where Federer goes for a light workout before he claims the Wimbledon trophy and new Rolex. Although it did turn out to be a light workout for both players on Sunday, the player hoisting the more valuable prize at the end of the day was Murray, not Federer.
Ivan Lendl must not have gotten the memo that most other fans and analysts read prior to the final. Apparently, he and Murray went ahead and game-planned anyway. And what a game plan it was.
Murray cut through Federer on Sunday like a hot knife through butter. In three sets, lasting under two hours, Federer won seven games. The final score was Murray over Federer 6-2, 6-1, 6-4. After starting the first set 2-2, Murray went on to win nine straight games and improve his advantage in the match to 6-2, 5-0.
It's difficult to conjure a time when Fed was taken to school so thoroughly in the finals of big tournament. The drubbing was so complete that in the modern era of Olympic tennis (which started back up in 1988) Federer's performance Sunday stands as the second-worst.
The 1996 Olympics in Atlanta still remains the most lopsided, when Andre Agassi clobbered Sergi Bruguera by a score of 6-2, 6-3, 6-1. Federer got one more game against Murray than Bruguera got against Agassi. If you predicted this result, pat yourself on the back again for good measure.
Labeling the results surprising is not meant to take anything away from Andy Murray or Great Britain. His overall record against Federer, which now stands at 9-8, is hard-earned.
Murray has commonly been thought of as part of the "Big Four" in tennis over the last couple years. And to be mentioned in the same breath as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, you know you're doing something right.
However, Murray has never won a Grand Slam, and for that reason, his inclusion in the group almost seemed like a stretch. Although the Olympics isn't considered on the same tier as a regular Grand Slam event, this was a special and equally huge win for Andy Murray.
With his gold-medal victory over Federer, Murray should take considerable confidence. It's a credit to his hard work and prior results, as well as his extremely wise choice in recently selecting Ivan Lendl as his coach.
Somehow, Lendl and Murray cooked up the perfect recipe for beating Federer on Sunday. Although I'm not sure the plan was scripted for Murray to hit a lowly 51 percent first-serve percentage (which he did), it still turned out to be enough to get by Federer.
Maybe Lendl forced Murray to watch the movie Airplane in an endless loop to drill the "bend not break" mentality. Or maybe they simply watched some film of Nadal going continuously to the Federer backhand. That seemed to be where a great majority of the Federer unforced errors were coming from on big points. That's the exact type of thing Federer was trying to avoid. Advantage: Lendl.
As Federer has gotten older, the tendency for him to run around his backhand and hit higher-pace and riskier forehands has increased. It appears he wants to aggressively shorten the number of strokes per point, and his wicked forehand is the perfect tool to cut to the chase.
It's those players who can hit with high pace or angle and keep Federer from doing the run-around that find success. That's the primary reason Federer's semifinal against Juan Martin del Potro (ironically the only other human not named Nadal to beat Federer in a Grand Slam final) was so close—because of the high pace and relatively flat (spinless) groundstrokes that Delpo was able to sling in Fed's backhand corner.
Despite Delpo's loss, he might have done Murray a large favor by draining a good chunk of Federer's physical and emotional reserves.
Other tactics that Paul Annacone, Federer's current coach, has been preaching is for Federer to approach the net more. With an effective serve like Federer's, this should technically be another good avenue to shorten points.
Unfortunately, either due to fatigue on Federer's part or excellence on Murray's, the strategy fell flat during the Olympic final. In that match, Federer won only 55 percent of his points at the net. In contrast, Federer won a stratospheric 78 percent during the recent Wimbledon final against Murray.
That's a steep decline in success at the net, and certainly Murray's excellent passing game during the Olympic match was a contributing factor.
One statistic that sticks out from the Olympic match was the number of winners hit by Federer. Roger hit a total of 24 winners during the gold-medal match, or an average of eight per set. During the Wimbledon final, Federer hit a total of 62 winners, or an average of 15.5 per set. Again, that's a precipitous drop in Federer's performance level and might account for many people's description that "he just didn't have it."
The most glaring statistic in the gold-medal match is found in break points converted. These are obviously highly critical times during the match, and the exact place that Federer had come up huge against Murray in previous encounters.
In the Wimbledon final, Federer converted 33 percent of his break-point chances, while Murray converted 29 percent of his. In the Olympic final, Federer converted 0 percent of his break points chances, while Murray converted an impressive 50 percent of his. That's a recipe for disaster in the Federer camp, and it pinpoints the real reason Andy Murray was finally able to overcome Roger Federer in a big-time match.
Murray played better during the critical moments—something we can rarely say about an opponent of Roger's in a final. Remember, Roger is 15-1 against all opponents not named Rafael Nadal in Grand Slam finals, and 2-6 against Nadal himself. So if your name isn't Nadal, it takes something special to beat him.
Apparently, Murray had his lucky charm on Sunday. And I think that charm he brought to court has LENDL on his license plates back here in America.
Despite the loss, Roger Federer has no reason to hang his head. He fought valiantly in the semifinals and earned his silver medal that day. Although he lost on Sunday, it's hard to argue the outcome will significantly affect his legacy.
The crazy thing is that 200 years from now when people look back at Olympic tennis history, they'll see a gold medal for Switzerland during the late 20th and early 21st century. But currently, the only Swiss name affiliated with an Olympic gold medal in men's singles tennis is Mr. Marc Rosset, who won gold at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona against the Spaniard Jordi Arrese.
The Olympics is supposed to be a place where the very best in sport compete to proclaim their excellence. Unless Federer can come through in 2016, there will be a mysterious absence in the historical record.