Tuesday, 11 September 2012
It took 5 times of asking, and years of disappointment but Andy Murray has joined the illustrious company of Grand Slam winners. Even without the significance of being the first British man to win a Grand Slam in a three quarters of a century, it was a fantastic moment seeing him finally claim a major after so much physical and emotional investment. Perhaps the most low key celebration after winning a Grand Slam I've ever seen, it indicated the sheer relief of owning one after being ordained year upon year to win one, and facing the suggestion that it might never happen.
But the way in which he won could not have been more emphatic. Defeating Novak Djokovic, winner of the past 3 hard court Grand Slams he reversed the criticism directed at his supposedly weak mentality and lack of mettle at pressure moments, holding his nerve and timing his final set push with a brilliant demonstration of individual willpower. It was without doubt a magnificent match, one of the all time classic Grand Slam finals and contained some of the most unimaginable tennis played all years, superseding even their 5 hour encounter at the Australian Open earlier this year. The first set alone lasted 1 hour and a half and featured an exhibition length, 54 shot rally - although the quality was severely affected by the windy conditions, Murray and Djokovic still managed to push each other to the limit as far as possible. Murray's adaptation to the conditions benefited him in the first set as Djokovic struggled with his footwork, and when the tiebreaker came around he seemed the more stable of the two players. Like the majority of the first set the breaker was a cagey affair with neither man taking the initiative, but Murray took it with some controlled aggression and served strongly at the right moments.
The mammoth set completed, Djokovic was winded and Murray took control in the second, pulling out to a sizable lead. Closing it out eventually 7-5, there was still the indiciation from Djokovic that he was about to mount a comeback - he really is the man who cannot stay dead in Grand Slams these days, and by the fourth set it seemed as if he was about to pull off another impossible comeback as Murray appeared to be running out of energy. The rallies continued to be lengthy and ferocious with some of the most dazzling displays of defence and counterpunching ever seen - it was fascinating to watch the two best backhands in the world trading pound for pound from the baseline, looking for openings and angles. Owing to their combined consistency off the ground off that wing each man seemed a wall to the other - particularly for Djokovic, until he found his aggressive edge from the third set onwards could not break through Murray's defence. The quality of the tennis that night was unbelievable, and along with the Australian Open is just another demonstration of what it takes to win a Grand Slam. There is a chasm between the top 4 Grand Slam winners and everyone beneath, and that is only set to continue for the next 2-3 years with Murray and Djokovic in their prime, Federer still playing and Nadal possibly returning for the Australian Open in 2013.
For Murray the chasm has now been closed and as far as a tennis player can feel complete, he can be assured that he is remembered within the highest echelons of the sport as someone who was able to mark his name in an era of multiple slam winners. A big piece of the puzzle must be accredited to the best decision in Murray's career in hiring Ivan Lendl, whose failure and then triumph in his 5th Grand Slam final mirrors Murray's exactly. There seems to be something that Lendl sees of himself in Murray, and Murray is deeply indebted to Lendl for guiding him to both an Olympic Gold Medal and the US Open title. The journey has been an arduous one, but now Murray will have that core of belief to go on and win more, to feel that he genuinely belongs amongst the circle of Grand Slam champions and press forward to challenge for the no.1 ranking.
Sunday, 9 September 2012
So the final has been set. After weathering a great start by David Ferrer and some gruelling, lengthy rallies, Djokovic secured his place in the final to reignite a rivalry which is developing into what could be one of the great rivalries of modern tennis. The clash tomorrow in NYC will be their latest in a Grand Slam since their 5 hour thriller at the Australian Open this year, where the opportunity for Murray's first Grand Slam is once again at stake. The Australian Open was the first tournament Murray played under the tutelage of Ivan Lendl, and since then Murray seems to have moved forward and developed as a player, accomplishing his greatest achievement in becoming the Olympic champion. It seems ripe time for him to win his premiere slam. We have of course heard this many times before, but with his masterful performance at the Olympics, he should have a hugely positive experience to draw upon when he faces the most formidable man on a hard court for the past two years, who is chasing his fourth hard court major in a row. The past two matches have been a showcase for Djokovic's staggering defensive capabilities as the mighty hitting del Potro was unable to batter through the Serbian stronghold and nor was the dogged David Ferrer. Dubbed the 'elastic man', his ability to redirect powerful drives and retrieve normally unreturnable serves has been more daunting than his aggressive game. It's almost impossible to hit through him. But Murray has several more weapons to trouble him, and a backhand that can match Djokovic's pound for pound.
A possible key to the match is how well Murray serves - if he keeps his percentages high and plays with enough variation to keep Djokovic off balance he'll be able to take earlier strikes and not trade too much from the baseline. The more capable volleyer, Murray has to be looking to shorten the points and finish at the net when possible, because getting into protracted rallies with Djokovic does not bode well when the Serb is defending the way he is currently. He has to move Djokovic side to side and try to draw him into the forecourt where he is less comfortable coming forward. Expect plenty of sublime passing shots from both tomorrow. For Djokovic, he is the man to beat, realistically speaking. If he executes the way he has been doing he's going to be almost insurmountable on this surface, particularly if he combines his phenomenal defence with an aggressive mindset. Murray will play plenty of touch shots, and Djokovic needs to be ready to take those types of shots on and play as close to the baseline as possible.
It's a tantalising prospect and a superb way to end the year of Grand Slams. My prediction:
A 5 set classic, Murray the victor.