Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Federer v Murray - Who Has The Edge?

ANY clash between Andy Murray and Roger Federer brings intrigue and edge to the world of tennis.

These are competitors who have been hurt at the hands of each other. They are also players who think deeply about the game. Any victory is seen as a result of superior strategy as well as talent.

Only Murray and Rafael Nadal have winning records against Federer and there is ample evidence that the Scot’s superiority rankles with the Swiss player. But he is more than consoled with the realisation that his 16 grand slams contrast somewhat starkly with Murray’s nil. Federer, too, has beaten Murray comfortably in two grand slam finals.

Yet in the 13 times they met, all on hard court, Murray has an 8-5 winning record. He will attempt to improve on that today in the Barclays ATP World Tour finals at the O2 Arena in London.

Victory for either player will almost certainly provide a passage to the semi-final stage after their facile victories in the opening matches on Sunday. However, the match will also provide at least a tentative answer to where both players are heading. The agreed backstory is that Murray is searching to make a significant step forward while Federer is fighting against the ravages of time. He will be 30 in August and as he sat nursing a cold in the aftermath of his straight-sets victory over David Ferrer, it was tempting to add the virus to a catalogue of evidence that the great man is slowly crumbling.

This should be resisted. Federer is not the invincible No.1 of old but he is still a player of considerable strength and will. His season, described as terrible by some, has included four titles, including a major. He is far from finished and would relish using the tour finals as the launch pad for another Australian Open.

Murray’s season has included a grand slam final and two titles. These are inextricably linked to Federer. He lost to the Swiss player in Australia and then beat him in the finals in Toronto and Shanghai. The question he still has to answer is whether he can claim a grand slam title. The tour finals could give him considerable encouragement. Federer was right to state this week that he and Murray have peaked at the right times. On the evidence of the opening matches, the two players are meeting each other in good form.

The outcome of the match, though, will depend on the success of the strategies employed. Federer was wilfully oblique when speaking of how Murray caused him problems.

He dismissed his losing record against the Scot with a glib: “The top guys, you know, I’m talking about Murray, Djokovic, and Rafa, we’ve beaten each other on and off. I don’t think nobody’s beaten the other guy five in a row or something.” Murray has beaten Federer on four consecutive occasions (see panel).

Federer was more open when he said: “You always look for new ways to try to beat him again, look back at the matches, what happened, what went well.” He emphasised he has won the big matches against the Scot, adding: “I guess overall I’ve been a bit more consistent than he has, otherwise I wouldn’t be in front in the rankings.”

This is undeniable but it carries the merest hint of edge in the normally douce world of tennis media relations. Federer will have spent yesterday refining his plan to beat Murray. He will be keen to pressurise the Scot, hope to plunder his younger opponent’s second serve and trust in his forehand and movement to do the rest.

Murray’s gameplan will be fascinating to behold. The world No.5 loves to theorise and then impose a strategy on his opponent. Against Robin Soderling on Sunday, Murray tugged his opponent around as if he was on the end of piece of string before passing the Swede or dropping a shot at his feet.

It was a calm, confident Murray and he spoke afterwards about how “relaxed” he now was at facing Federer. “It will be a great match,” he said of this afternoon’s collision in Group B. “I love playing against Roger. Now I feel a lot more relaxed playing against him.”

So how will he play? “You need to have a strategy in every match against the top guys,” he said after his tactics confounded Soderling. “You know you’re not going to play the same way against everybody.”

Murray was confronted after that impressive victory with the wearisome question about a perceived lack of aggression. It accompanies him around the world and it suggests that Murray would win majors if he was, well, more aggressive. There is rarely any further definition.

Murray, though, does best when he identifies a player’s weakness and then capitalises on it. This normally involves the Scot using his abilities as a “counter-puncher”, returning brilliantly and dominating rallies from the baseline.

But he has added to his game this year. Federer spoke on Sunday about aces being hard to come by on the slow O2 court. He estimated that five aces would be a decent total for him in a match. Murray thrashed 10 past Soderling in two sets. The Scot’s serving has become a considerable weapon.

More intriguingly, Murray has seized the initiative in recent matches with both Federer and Nadal. “I played very aggressive tennis. That’s what you need to do against them,” he said of facing the Big Two.

“I’ve worked on serve-volleying in some matches the last few weeks. I’ve attacked a lot better towards the end of this year than I was at the beginning,” he added. Murray, the cool thinker, to outmuscle Federer? Federer, the sublime attacking stroke player, to strike from defensive positions on the baseline?

This is the intrigue. The edge will almost be tangible.

Courtesy: Herald Scotland

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