As Roger Federer’s forehand lob went outside the baseline on the championship point, Andy Murray let out a slight scream of joy, went to his support crew for a little celebration, and looked happy. When he gave the presentation speech, though, the same elation was replaced by contention. So was his body language while collecting the trophy, staging the champion’s walk, and posing for the photographers. He was happy, no doubt about it. But he has been in this place before, winning the Master’s titles four times, including one in Canada. His mind must have wandering towards the bigger prize, the proceedings of which starts two weeks later at New York—the U. S. Open.
Being in this situation was a familiar territory for him, so no apprehensions were there. How he came into this situation, though, was not so familiar. I had mentioned yesterday that a lot will depend on how comfortable Murray will feel operating outside his comfort zone while playing against Federer. Just like his counter punching style doesn’t work against Rafael Nadal, it doesn’t work against the 16-time Slam winner too.
Murray had tried operating the same way at Melbourne, however missed a trick by continuously targeting the Federer backhand. Federer is awfully good at his backhand side if the ball does not bounce high, usually by running around his backhand to unleash his own version of the inside-out forehand, or hitting the forehand down-the-line. He is more vulnerable—especially since the last couple of years when he has not been so consistent in his ground game—while hitting the forehand on the run. Murray utilized this exact weakness at Toronto starting with his excellent return game. It is amazing how well Murray returns—it was no surprise when he read Nadal’s relatively poor serve so well yesterday, but it sure was amazing that Federer won less than 50 percent of his points on his first serve in the first set! Murray was that good in reading even Federer’s serve.
In fact, the roles reversed yesterday, as Federer did the same mistake that Murray did at Melbourne—targeting Murray’s stronger backhand wing. Time and again, his second serve went into Murray’s two-hander, and even while charging the net, he erred by hitting into Murray’s backhand—and see a brilliant passing shot go by him—even when he had ample time to direct his shot anywhere on the court. Moreover, after returning aggressively throughout the tournament, Federer again went back into his comfort shell by chipping Murray’s second serve rather than attacking it. And once Murray was getting into the rallies, he was pretty much dominating the court with his backhand.
All this makes Murray an extremely fascinating player to watch when he plays the top players. He is not like the other big ball bashers that his opponents in the finals are used to playing on their road towards the semis or the finals. He does not give his opponents enough pace to work with. This forces them to change the way play, and think differently. One could see the same in Federer’s play today as he tried hitting uncharacteristic drop shots from the baseline rather than from the mid court, or even a forehand slice which looked pretty ugly as it touched the bottom of the net.
On the flip side, Murray does not have the luxury of playing the inconsistent big hitters in the big matches who will give him free points off errors when he stays long enough in the rallies. This makes Murray himself to change his style of play. And once both the opponents are forced to play outside their comfort zones, it guarantees a fascinating passage of play even if the quality may deter in between.
And for this reason, modern tennis is blessed with Andy Murray for offering a much needed variety in today’s power baseline game, whether or not he wins a Slam. The biggest question still hovering around Murray’s chances in a major final is whether he can continue controlling his instincts and play the way he did in his last two matches and not feel mentally tired. A win over Nadal and Federer in back to back matches with a more aggressive style of play goes a long way in answering some of these questions. The remaining questions, though, will still be carried forward to New York.