Andy Murray recently suffered the biggest disappointment so far of his short career. While defeat to Roger Federer in a grand slam is nothing new to him, never before has he come so close. Unlike the US Open in 2008, Murray actually gave a performance to be proud of, despite the repetition of the straight sets scoreline. For long periods he stood toe to toe with whom many regard as the world’s greatest ever tennis player, in Roger Federer. At one point in the third set, 5-2 up, it looked like the momentum had swung Murray’s way, and a fightback looked on the cards. Unfortunately however, Roger’s abundance of experience shone through, as he artfully picked the locks of the Scot’s defences.
Murray’s progress through the Australian Open came as a pleasant surprise to his many detractors. Some claimed that he possessed a defensive and reactive style of tennis, which was ill-fitting with his ambition to be up with the very best in the world. One example of such a trait has been his tendency to stay behind the baseline for the majority of points, allowing his opponent to force the initiative at key points in the match. In the 2009 Grand Slams, this weakness was brutally underlined by the game’s power players. Roddick, Cillic, Verdasco, and Gonzalez, all walked away having blown Murray off the court. Granted, on each occasion the victor played out of their skin, but each time, the Scot seemed too passive to really pose many questions of his own. He is yet to beat a big hitter at his own game.
However, so far in 2010, we have seen him come out of his shell somewhat. In reaching the final in Melbourne, some big threats were neutralised. 6 ft 9 John Isner was dispatched in round four, with Murray coping well with his booming serve, followed by the defeat of Rafael Nadal in the last eight. In many ways it was difficult to judge Murray’s progress on this match alone, as the Spaniard’s well-publicised knee injury once again came to the fore, forcing an early retirement. In Murray’s defence though, Nadal appeared to be close to his best in the first two sets, before his injury became apparent, and during this 2 hours of tennis, we saw a new Andy Murray. One that stepped into the net, dealt ferocious groundstrokes, and was not afraid to take on a player who 12 months ago seemed unstoppable. While Nadal is certainly not the same player since his injury last year, for the British number one to ruthlessly expose his shortcomings in such a big tournament was crucial in illustrating his new found confidence. It was perhaps fitting that to reach the final, Murray had to beat the man that halted his 2009 US Open progress, in Marin Cillic. Eventually, Murray prevailed in four sets, showing again how much work on his technique had been put in over the winter break.
And so, came the biggest test of his career; a match-up with a player at the peak of his powers, or anyone else’s powers. A match that would be the true gauge of his world standing. It is perhaps not surprising that Murray retreated into his shell slightly. He must have wished he could just sit back and enjoy the show that Federer put on, but the Scot was braver than that. The opening exchanges were perhaps proof enough that Federer would need to be at his best to lift the trophy. At 2-0 up in the first set, many onlookers in Melbourne probably anticipated a stroll in the park for the Swiss legend. And while the straight-sets scoreline probably suggests that to be the case, it would be an inaccurate assumption. For in response to this opening blow from Federer, Murray immediately hit back with his own break of serve. Possibly the serve was a key weakness in Murray’s game. At best, his first serve throughout the final can be described as hit and miss. This gave Federer cheap points at key moments. Frustratingly, in the rallies, Murray showed his real class, at times moving his opponent expertly around the court. However, his first serve, as proven by the stats, lacked accuracy, and with Federer in such an unforgiving mood, this will always prove to be an important flaw.
While Murray is without a Grand Slam to his name, there will always be doubters of his genuine quality. It is true that he is the only remaining player in the top five without one of these holy grails. However, the moment he faces an opponent other than Federer in a final, mark my words, we will have a British champion. Perhaps even the Fed knows that anything less than his imperious best would have seen Murray walk away victorious in current form. A backhanded compliment maybe, but it is testament to the fact that Andy Murray is on his way to the top. The clay court season may prove too big an obstacle at this stage in his career, but it is a challenge he will be more than happy to take on. If he continues with his more aggressive tactics throughout this year, then either Wimbledon or America will see his promise of success promise come to fruition.