Thursday, 24 January 2013

Murray vs Federer - A plea for sanity.

Ever since Murray won his maiden Slam last year there's been an eruption of speculation on what bearing this might have on his chances of success at this year's AO and, indeed, throughout the rest of 2013.

This isn't about the shrill, garden-variety hyperbole of the Brit press which might be expected to gather pace after a 76 year male Slam champion drought, nor that very committed periphery of fans that consider Fedal all too "mainstream" and seek to usher in the "edgier" age of 'Novandy' by any means necessary (it's of trifling significance, OF COURSE, that both Federer and Rafa were Slam winners in 2012 too).

But even beyond excesses like this (seriously, read it), our more acceptable appetite for "change" appears to have led many (I believe) to over-inflate their well-meaning prognosis of Murray's coming year.

Such an appetite is, of course, natural; change is exciting, inevitable and often challenges our most sacred tenets - witnessing it can be as hypnotic as it is traumatic.

But it should not be sought at any cost (I'd much rather see Vika/Masha step it up vs Serena the way, say, Stosur did in 2011 than see Serena hobble out of the event in the name of "change") and should always be grounded in reality.

Murray's success opposite Fed prior to Wimbledon last year was at the Masters (three set) level and born largely of frustrating Fed into errors. Yes, that's a gross oversimplification, but, as with all gross oversimplifications, has its basis in reality.

Yet anyone that's followed the evolution of his game - particularly (but not exclusively) after Lendl's involvement - will know that that somewhat threadbare characterisation is in need of revision.

He's still not, for my money, getting the free points he should with his 1st serve, but there can be no doubting his improved FH and more frequent attempts at shortening points.

The problem is many of those changes are optimisations rather than wholesale revision. Or to put it another way, adjustments bolted on to the edifice of his existing game, rather than some radical, fairy-tale attempt to rebuild his game from the ground up.

You could argue in similar terms of Wozniacki. While it's only right to exhort her to play with more aggression, it's rather silly to expect her to reemerge from a period of 'reorientation' as, say, Sabine Lisicki.

The facets of the game Murray grew up with, may continue to go through adjustments, but will remain, with very few exceptions, as organic to him as that glaring birthmark of his.

And therein lies the rub: for when the pressure is on, players will, almost without fail, default back to their old less-nuanced selves; stripped down of any and all intricacies they will, no doubt, have worked so hard to introduce.

It's just easier at that point in the game not to fight physics.

His previous Slam matches vs Federer have mostly seen the latter come out lightening fast smothering any rhythm Murray might have created right out of the blocks.

And TBH, a large part of Fed's focus will be on bringing exactly that about: to whip, carve and maybe even coax Murray into that pliable, more compliant version of opponent against which he's had so many wins at this level and can more comfortably close the remainder of the match out.

Of course the great expectation is that Murray's new 'enSlammed' status as well as his win at the OG will bolster him enough for him to see the occasion in an entirely new light: that such regression will either be minimal, or won't take place at all. His performance in the Wimbledon final does actually give us some confidence in that regard (though pretending Fed wasn't exhausted at the OG? Too far)

And it's certainly right to say he would/should now be disappointed at repeating the same mistakes against Fed (or anyone) at every Slam going forward (He can hardly be expected to be content with "just" another SF having already made a number of those playing pre-Lendl tennis)

But we need to stop pretending that he's turned into Optimus Prime - or even Ernests Gulbis.

Or that the nature of his matchup vs Fed has so radically changed as to render Murray the "overwhelming favourite".

He's not the overwhelming favourite. He may not even *be* the favourite.

It's still, at its core, the same battle of wills between Fed trying to impose himself on the one hand and Murray attempting to seize the initiative earlier on in the rallies - and not regressing into his comfort zone of passive, pre-Lendl tennis.

And if Fed's service at this event is anything to go by, that battle will be 50/50 at best.

If Murray wins, it'll be because he's successfully executed the gameplan that was custom built, and fine tuned to, both the strengths AND the limitations
of his, and only his game.

Not because he's turned into Robin Soderling.

Signed, a Murray fan.

(Image: Sky Sports)

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