Friday, 28 January 2011

Resilient performance from Murray

It wasn't the greatest performance of his career, but Andy Murray showed his fighting qualities to beat David Ferrer and battle through to his second successive Australian Open final.

After an error-strewn performance in the first two sets Murray was perhaps lucky to find himself at one set all. He wasted early breaks in both sets, was making an uncharacteristic number of unforced errors and looked fragile on his second serve. The turning point of the match looked to have come when Murray was serving to stay in the second set at 4-5. A couple of good returns from Ferrer put Andy in a very precarious position at 30-40 but he finally produced a big first serve on a key point to rescue the situation. The pressure was beginning to show and the question was who would crack first? Ferrer was evidently feeling the strain as he handed Murray a break in the very next game. Yet another ill-timed Murray drop shot was easily chased down by Ferrer but he dumped the regulation backhand into the net. Having only just served to stay in the set Murray now had a chance to serve for it. Having already seen two earlier breaks evaporate, Murray again failed to take advantage of the opportunity he was given. Ferrer immediately broke back to take the second set into a tie-break. Would Andy be made to pay for his profligacy? Well, erm, no. Murray really stepped up to the plate in the tie-break and quickly raced into a 6-0 lead. Ferrer managed to get it back to 6-2 but Murray managed to close it out to take the breaker 7-2.

After winning that second set it appeared that the floodgates had opened. Murray produced a masterclass of clean hitting and variety and galloped away with the third set 6-1. It appeared to all be over when Murray got an early break in the fourth, but just like in the first two sets Andy made it difficult for himself by allowing Ferrer back into it at two games all. A series of tense games then ensued with both players seeming to struggle. Somehow both players managed to hold on and the tie-break was reached. Murray started the breaker quickly with an immediate mini-break to go 1-0 up, Ferrer hit back with a mini-break of his own and got it back on serve, 2-1 Murray. A significant increase in tempo by the Scot forced an error from Ferrer which was followed up by a return winner and an ace. Another big first serve earned Murray five match points. Ferrer managed to save one of them but Andy Murray sealed the victory with a volley into the empty court. At times it wasn't pretty but he did it.

Next up for Murray is Novak Djokovic. Apparently Djokovic was planning on watching the second semi-final in bed with a bucket of popcorn. Whether he did or not we may never know, but what might he have been thinking? What does Sunday's final hold in store?

Murray's performance in the first two sets was poor and against a better player than Ferrer he would have been 2-0 down. Ferrer showed great determination and guts but even against a below-par Andy Murray he was slightly over-matched. Djokovic is a different proposition completely and will provide a far tougher test than Ferrer. Murray cannot afford as many errors as he made today, Novak will make him pay.

More encouraging for Murray were the glimpses of brilliance he showed. His third set performance was first class, and the composure he showed in the two tie-breaks was also excellent. On his day Murray can beat anyone, will Sunday be his day? He certainly now has the experience to win a grand slam. In his previous two grand slam final appearances he was up against Roger Federer and appeared to be overawed by the occasion. The time is right for him to step forward and claim his first major title. Djokovic is obviously no pushover, but the chance to win a grand slam without facing either of the top two players in the world is too good to pass up. I'm backing him to become the next Australian Open champion on Sunday morning. It's about 50-50 but my British heart is overruling my head. Murray FTW!

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Federer in decline?

So I'm sitting here watching Novak Djokovic thoroughly outclass Roger Federer. I'm supposed to be doing an online aptitude test for a job application but that's a different matter (in fact putting off doing that is the main reason I even started this blog). Federer has just dumped a tame forehand return into the net, his 44th unforced error of the match. That's "Game, set and match Djokovic, 3 sets to love, 7-6, 7-5, 6-4"

Has Djokovic improved his game in the last 6 months? Undoubtedly. His movement has always been exceptional but his service game has greatly improved and his forehand seems to be a more potent weapon than ever before. Winning the Davis Cup for the first time in Serbia's history certainly seems to have galvanised him, or maybe it was just the presence of the lovely Ana Ivanovic in his box. He now enjoys an extra day of rest before the final on Sunday where he will face either Andy Murray or David Ferrer.

Congratulations to Nole, but this blog entry isn't about him. Federer's performance in this match could be put down to a blip, an anomaly, a slight under performance by him on a day when his opponent played outstandingly well. However, Roger Federer's problems seem to run a little deeper.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of Federer. He is undoubtedly one of, if not the, greatest players ever. The records he holds are incredible and I doubt if anyone will ever match his feat of 23 consecutive grand slam semi-finals. His run at this years Australian Open also equalled the record for consecutive grand slam quarter-final appearances (27 matching the record set by Jimmy Connors). However, his failure to reach Sunday's showdown means that he will have not appeared in a grand slam final in his last four attempts. A bit of a drought for a player who reached 18 of 19 grand slam finals between Wimbledon 2005 and last years Aussie Open. The only final he missed in that period was also down under, when he lost to an inspired Novak Djokovic in the semis in 2008. Djokovic went on to win the final against Jo-Wilfred Tsonga to claim what is, to date, his only grand slam title. I'm sure Novak will be hoping for a repeat performance on Sunday.

Has Federer got worse? Or have his competitors got better? I think it is obviously a combination of both. Federer may be the greatest player ever, but he is probably only the second or third best player in the world at the moment. Nadal has to be number one having won the last three grand slams and Djokovic's form at the end of last year was excellent, form which he has carried into the new season.

So where did it all go wrong for Federer?

I think that to answer this question we need to go all the way back to Roland Garos in 2008. Federer and Nadal had both reached the final with relative ease and the stage was set for an epic match-up. A classic encounter was expected. World number one Federer certainly enjoyed more support from the crowd who were desperate to see him push the three time defending champion all the way. Hopes were high that the Fed Express would complete his historic career grand slam in Paris. Those hopes lasted approximately three or four minutes until Rafa broke Federer in the first game, going on to take the first set 6-1 in just 32 minutes. The second set was a little closer with Nadal taking it 6-3. The third set, however, was a massacre. Federer was swept aside 6-0, his first bagel in a grand slam match for 9 years. Nadal had not only beaten Federer, he had crushed him.

Fast forward a month to the Wimbledon final. The great Federer may have been humiliated in Paris but now he was home. He was going for his sixth consecutive title at SW19. Nadal had come up short in 2006 and 2007 and was looking for his first grand slam title away from the clay. Federer was looking to exact revenge for the thrashing he took at the French Open and to reassert himself as The Number 1. Nadal may be able to beat him on clay, but Centre Court was his house. Cue perhaps the greatest match in the history of tennis, certainly the greatest match in my lifetime. Nadal raced into a two set to love lead leaving Federer fans dismayed and wondering if another 3-0 defeat was on the cards. It was not to be as Federer came roaring back and levelled it up at 2-2. A topsy-turvy final set ensued and in the fading light it was eventually Nadal who came out on top 9-7. The seemingly invincible Federer had been beaten at Wimbledon for the first time in 35 matches.

In August 2008 Federer had finally been toppled from the number one spot in the ATP rankings after 237 consecutive weeks. Nadal was the new number one. All was not lost as Federer went on to defend his US Open title against a tired and lacklustre Andy Murray meaning he at least finished the year with one grand slam title. The tide had started to turn though and the dominance of Federer had been thrown into doubt like never before.

Nadal and Federer were to resume their great rivalry at the first grand slam of 2009 in Melbourne. Again it was in the final and again it was Rafa who prevailed. Federer had definitely been usurped.

It is somewhat ironic that what followed was one of the most momentous moments in Roger Federer's career. He had won 13 grand slam titles but was yet to win the French Open. Many pundits were already calling him the greatest player ever but he wanted that elusive clay court grand slam title to cement his status as the greatest of all time. That title finally arrived at Roland Garos in 2009. After losing to Nadal for four consecutive years (once in the semis and three times in the final) he finally won the title he wanted above all others. However, he didn't win it against Nadal. Robin Soderling beat a below-par Rafael Nadal in the fourth round in a huge upset. Soderling did what Federer could not and went all the way to the final. The final proved to be one match too far for him and he lost to Federer in straight sets. Federer had finally achieved his career grand slam and regardless of the manner of victory, had secured his place in history.

Nadal was unable to defend his Wimbledon title in 2009 due to a knee injury and Federer reclaimed his crown as the king of Centre Court with a hard-earned 5 set win over American Andy Roddick. All seemed to be well in Camp Federer. He had his career grand slam and was back at world number one. A surprise defeat to Juan Martin Del Potro (may he well get well soon) in the US Open final was a blemish in an otherwise excellent six months for Roger.

2010 started well for Federer as he won the Australian Open against Andy Murray, but the rest of the year was to belong to somebody else. A resurgent Rafa was once again fully fit and stormed to victory at Roland Garos, Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows, completing his own career grand slam in the process. He won all of these titles without facing Roger Federer as the great man suffered surprise defeats against Soderling and Berdych in Paris and London respectively, before losing to Djokovic in the US Open semi-final.

Obviously you can only beat what is put in front of you and nothing should be taken away from either Roger or Rafa for what they achieved in 2009 and 2010. Personally I think that whilst 2009 proved to be a successful year for Federer in terms of the titles he won, it was more a case of papering over the cracks, the decline had already started in 2008. The return to full fitness of Nadal and Djokovic's improvement in form have relegated Federer, in my opinion, to the third best player in the world.

So, can Fed recapture his best form and become the dominant force he once was? He turns 30 this year and this blogger feels that his best days are behind him. I remain hopeful, however, that he can make some improvements in the coming months and maybe capture another one or two grand slam titles before he retires. Here's hoping that June and July can bring us two more Federer vs. Nadal classics...