Sunday, January 31, 2010

Federer wins another major, but that's not even the story


Roger Federer won another grand slam Sunday night in Melbourne, defeating Andy Murray 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (11) to give him 16 for his career. At 28, he now owns two more than Pete Sampras — and he's showing no signs of slowing down or deciding to take a break from such pursuits.

But don't be mistaken — the Federer who kissed another trophy Sunday wasn't the same player who a few years ago crushed opponents with an intimidating assortment of serves, groundstrokes, volleys and fist pumps. Federer might be the world's No. 1, but by no means is there a large or even small gap between him and the rest of the world's best such as Murray, Rafael Nadal (when healthy), Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro, who thwarted Federer, surprisingly at the time, in last September's U.S. Open.

Rather, Sunday was about another missed opportunity for Murray, the 22-year-old Brit who is trying to win a grand slam for the country that hasn't celebrated one since 1936. Murray, as he's shown in lesser tournaments, is physically capable of beating Federer, but in the spectacle of Rod Laver Arena he was clearly far from his best.

Which is why Federer won. Sure, he played very impressively and consistently, hitting the big groundstrokes and volleys when he needed them — fighting off five set points in the third-set tiebreak — but if Murray had played like he did in his quarterfinal dismantling of Nadal (who withdrew down two sets and a knee injury), he probably could have beaten Federer or at least pushed him for more than three sets.

For instance, Murray's backhand is considered the best in men's tennis, but he only matched Federer with six backhand winners. And his 55-percent serving percentage Sunday won't win many grand slam finals.

What Federer does better than ever now is take advantage of his opponent's mistakes. Whenever Murray hit a lazy backhand to Federer's forehand, the four-time Aussie Open champ made sure to pound it toward a corner of the court and won most of those points. He didn't waste his chances. 

Murray, on the other hand, had a handful of opportunities to win the third set and put a little pressure on Federer. But at 6-5 in the tiebreak, he muffed a short forehand into the net, and he blew another four opportunities to win the set during the ridiculous 13-11 tiebreak. 

Federer hardly showed a hint of emotion during the tiebreak, simply going about his business like a convenience-store clerk. He attacked Murray when he had opportunities and played defense when he had to. He was completely comfortable, while Murray — feeling the burden of an entire country's hopes on his shoulders — clearly looked stressed as desperate as he was to win his first set against the world's No. 1 in a major (he's now 0-6 in sets).

Of course, it should be noted that this match might have been decided well before the epic tiebreak. Murray, admittingly, came out with little aggressiveness and lost the first set quickly, 6-3. That brought into play this ridiculous Federer statistic (and he owns many): He is now 172-5 when he takes the first set of a grand-slam match.


"I should have come out with a little more vigor at the beginning of the match," a tearful Murray said on the trophy stand. "I came out a little bit nervous."

(On a side note, Federer knows how to trash talk. On Friday, Federer mused that England hadn't produced a grand-slam winner in "150,000" years and bad-mouthed Murray's defensive style, saying that he had lost rather than Murray won the Brit's previous defeats of Federer in lesser tournaments. Who knows how much the banter affected Murray, if at all, but it certainly didn't hurt Federer, who, obviously, is far from "just talk.")

When he dropped the second set 6-4, Murray knew the mountain he had to climb, but he didn't get rattled and rolled to a 5-2 advantage in the third set. I poured myself a bowl of cereal and prepared for a fourth set. However, Federer is never one to concede a set, or point, or game, and he showed this by battling back and winning two service games sandwiched around a break. And a few minutes later, a tiebreak in Melbourne was imminent.

And that's where talent and athleticism take a backseat to experience and savvy. Murray showed a lot of guts to fight off two match points, including one in which he looked toast before hustling to slap a one-handed backhand past Federer at the net. But Federer showed off his own defense — easily the most underrated part of his game at this stage of his career — throughout the tiebreak and especially on a set point where he could barely get his racket on a huge forehand and survived a wide Murray volley.

Then, suddenly, it was over — on an easy backhand that Murray plopped into the net. And Federer's celebration was brief and, it seemed, one of relief. He thrust his arms into the air, tears welling in his eyes. And at that moment, he knew how great of a victory No. 16 was, he knew the caliber of player he'd just defeated.

"I think I played some of my best tennis (of my career) the last two weeks," Federer said during the trophy presentation. 

And later during his press conference: "I feel like obviously I'm being pushed a great deal by the new generation coming up. They've made me a better player, because I think this has been one of my finest performances in a long time, maybe forever."

Now that's saying something.

Best performance ever? I can't name a match, but I'm sure Federer has played plenty of flawless ones. However, his statement still resonates. He knows that there will be no more easy-earned majors, no more coasting over inferior, intimidated opponents. And that's perfectly fine with the man who now has two twins, a beautiful wife and, oh, those 16 majors.

The young guns will get theirs, at some point — think about how many majors players such as Murray, Nadal, Djokovic, the older Andy Roddick (27) and others would have if not for Federer — but for now, Federer unspectacularly remains the best winner in men's tennis.

Even if his competitors are mostly quicker and, you would think, hungrier.

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