Sunday, 27 January 2013

A No-Brainer

There must be great temptation amongst newspaper headline writers these days to title every Federer defeat "Roger. Over and Out". The Hollywood pilot's communication a fitting way to suggest that Federer's magical brand of tennis may be deserting him as the years tick by.  But his semi-final defeat at the hands of Andy Murray (the first time the #3 seed has bettered his opponent at a Grand Slam event) was biggest indicator so far of the Scots increased standing and Federer's struggling to keep pace.

Much has been made of Andy Murray's improved physicality - he is bulkier than he was when he played either of his previous Australian Open finals in 2010 and 11, and the muscularity of his legs show how he has worked hard to become one of the quickest players on tour.  However, what really won the semi-final for Murray this year was the improvements that he has made on aspects of his game.  Murray has always been a strong baseline player.  His forehand and backhand were always reasonably solid.  And although these have developed in consistency, accuracy and pace, the greater development that has come from his matured physique is with the serve.  The increased bulk has added extra ferocity onto his serve, and he now regularly exceeds the 130mph mark with his first serve, and can they rely on the accuracy for the second.

Against Federer, Murray was impeccable on serve, firing down 21 aces and no double faults, gaining him many cheap points.  Contrastingly, Federer managed only 5 aces, Murray able to read the accurate but slower serve of his opponent and pouncing on second serves with regular success.  It was the vulnerability of the Murray serve that had thwarted his chances on previous occasions against the Swiss man; now it is more of a weapon and was a huge contributing factor to the 64 67 63 67 62 victory against Federer in the semi-final.

However, there was another crucial factor that came into play on Friday, and that was the controlled consistency of the Murray mentality.  Mostly gone are the anguished faces, the frustrated yelling, the thigh-smacking, short tugging and racquet slapping.  Murray was able to put on his poker face, and channel his frustrations away from visible body language and into his game.  Against Federer he was uninhibited in his consistent aggression.  He took the match to Federer with the confidence of a slam victory behind him, and was the player dictating the rallies through the majority of the match.  Federer has been above Murray in the rankings for many years now, and even if Murray was to win the final today he will still be adrift of Federer in the points race.  But it is obvious that he is now fully prepped to overtake Federer in the standings, and has probably already overtaken psychologically, tactically and physically when they step on court.

Now, the only thing standing in the way of Andy Murray and a second consecutive slam championship is Novak Djokovic.  The Serb, unlike Murray who had a relatively straightforward road through the early rounds and wasn't really tested until the Federer match, has already had his fireworks, when he was nearly put out of the competition by a spirited performance from Swiss nearly-man Stanislas Wawrinka.  Djokovic came through that match by doing what he does best: he rode the storm of his slumps, patiently biding his time until his opponent took his foot off the pedal, then striking emphatically to gain the momentum in the match.  After this high drama, it was right then that Djokovic had relatively straightforward quarters and semis against Tomas Berdych and David Ferrer.  His semi-final in particular against the gutsy Spaniard (substituted into the Rafael Nadal space in the draw sheet) was a veritable thrashing.  Ferrer is a dogged retriever of the ball, hard-working and a tactical opponent who compensates his lack of height and power with clever, varied play.  All of this was irrelevant against Djokovic, who had too much raw power on his ground strokes and too much athleticism to be untroubled by the changes in speed and depth of Ferrer's ball.  For the #1 player in the world to defeat the #4 player in 89 minutes 62 62 61 reveals the chasm of quality between the two players, and how difficult it is for any player to ascend to this level.

It sets up what should be an incredibly close final.  Djokovic will be aiming to bag his third consecutive Australian Open title, while Murray will be looking to become the first man ever to follow up his maiden slam success with another trophy in the next slam event.  For Djokovic to win he needs to keep to his patient game, diligently defending until he can turn the screw and grasp the opportunities that come his way.  He will also need to rely on Murray's mentality reverting back to a more fragile state, as the strength of the Scot's resolve could be the factor that proves the difference this year.  Murray, to stand a chance of victory, needs to carry through the vigour and intensity that characterised his match with Federer.  He needs to serve as well as he has been, and exhibit sublime touch and variety to upset the Djokovic rhythm.

It is a difficult match to call, with Murray playing the best tennis of his career, and Djokovic less imperiously untouchable as he has been at previous events.  If the final had happened last year then the result would have been a no-brainer - hands down the Serb would have been the favourite.  This year, with a grand slam behind him, Andy Murray may well become the first man in history to claim his first two slam victories in consecutive events.

Winner: Andy Murray

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