“I hate to say it, but, in playing games, to go out in that arena and hear that there are more people cheering for them than for us — you know, I’ve never been associated with a team that has ever done that, and this is something that exists here.”
After going down 4-6 in the 1st set tiebreaker today, Andy Murray cracked his racquet on the floor of the O2 Arena, visibly frustrated. After all, he had just lot what ended up being the biggest point of the first set (maybe the whole match), and handed a minibreak to his Swiss rival. As the Scot walked to his chair to pick up a new stick, you could hear a smattering of boos coming from the stands.
To the crowd. You’re hired. Actually they already are as most are My staff. I bought them tickets and gave them 90mins off. You’re welcome
— Not Roger Federer (@PseudoFed) November 11, 2012
Yes, Andy Murray, on his way to being Scottish again after a lengthy spell as a Brit, was getting booed in a tennis match that was being played within the confines of the United Kingdom. The same country Andy Murray represented at this year’s Olympics.
A little later, at deuce in the eventually key third game of the second set, after Andy Murray got pegged back to deuce after being up 40-0, the ESPN announcing crew got into a debate trying to estimate the crowd support in percentages. Brad Gilbert, who was sitting courtside for the match, said that in his mind, the crowd was split 60-40. In favor of Roger Federer.
This was not that surprising to me, really. I had actually predicted this kind of crowd support in yesterday’s picks, and I had been proved right: instead of a sympathetic Olympic crowd, Murray got the same crowd support he got at his year’s Wimbledon final. Which means he again felt pretty much how the Atlanta Hawks and their coach feel whenever they play a more famous rival: “ (you) hear that there are more people cheering for them than for us “.
But you’re playing at “home”.
Murray’s biggest problem wasn’t the crowd, really. The Scot’s issues were the same that tipped the Wimbledon final in favor of Roger Federer. They are issues of tactics, strengths and weaknesses within this match-up. They are the same problems that made me think after watching Federer claim his seventh Wimbledon earlier this year that Andy Murray would never win a Grand Slam as long as Roger Federer stood in his way.
Let’s talk about those issues:
1. Andy Murray’s unwillingness to go down-the-line with his backhand.
This is utterly problematic for Murray, since it simplifies things for Federer: the Swiss knows that Murray will go exclusively cross-court in their backhand exchanges, and can focus solely on waiting for the right shot on which he can run around his backhand rather than having to worry about covering the deuce court.
You really do not want to make things simple for your opponent, and you really don’t want to play to their strengths. Federer’s inside-out forehand is most definitely a strength. And he’s Roger Federer, so you definitely don’t want to make things any easier for him.
2. Andy Murray’s second serve.
Today, Federer just obliterated the Scot’s second serve. In the first set, Federer always looked to run around the backhand return and hit forehands, and he was able to create significant pressure by doing so.
What’s worse is what little variety or depth Murray gets on that second delivery. Yes, Murray is probably the best on tour in terms of defending his second serve after it gets attacked, but when you have someone as ruthless as Federer, having to constantly defend your second serve becomes a sort of torture.
How comfortable was Federer handling Murray’s second serve? Here’s a stat, via Amy:
Roger Federer made every single 2nd serve return vs Murray, 34/34
— Steph Trudel (@TrudelSteph) November 11, 2012
Another comfort fact: the Swiss chipped and charged away when up a set and 4-2 in the second. He did it twice, and the second time it set up a break point for the clinching double break. It was easy for him to time the backhand slice return and move forward – he knew exactly where the ball was coming.
The devastating side-effect of attacking Murray’s second delivery was that Federer got a look at more and more of them, as the Scot’s first serve percentage went down.
Just look at the stats:
3. Andy Murray’s forehand return of serve
At Wimbledon, it was deflating for Murray to see that he had no answer for Federer’s great wide delivery. However, at the Olympics and then in Shanghai, Murray had gotten a better sense of when that serve was coming, and even punished quite a few good Federer serves with thumping forehand returns. Today he tried to do the same, but only got one of those in play. He never really got a grip on that deuce court return of serve, and even seemed flatfooted when trying to hit pseudo-aggressive forehand returns that missed the court by some margin. All of this means that Federer had an easier time picking his spots on his serve.
Which can only spell danger if you’re on the other side of the court.
4. Andy Murray’s forehand defense
One of the main reasons Novak Djokovic produced his incredible 2011 season was that he took his forehand defense up a notch. Actually, quite a few notches. Andy Murray is far from reaching those heights: today, when Federer attached the deuce court, Murray couldn’t really get back in many points because his replies ended up in the net or landed short, ready for Federer to attack them again.
4. Murray’s lack of acute angles when “attacking” with his cross-court backhand
In the early stages of the match, the Olympic champion was more than happy to blast away using his cross-court backhand, and he was going for a more acute angle than normal. This, coupled with Federer’s poor start had Murray up a break at 4-2. Murray was not only waiting for the Swiss to make a mistake, but he was looking to pull his opponent well wide with those rare injections of pace.
However, as the match progressed, Murray started hitting with less of an acute angle, straight at his opponent, making it even easier for Federer to wait out for the short ball, run around his backhand, and pounce. Not only that, but by hitting so many harmless cross-court backhands, Murray also opened up the backhand down the line for Federer.
And here is where all praise should be directed to the player who actually went out to take this match by the throat, even when he was misfiring all over the place. You can always tell how aggressive Roger Federer is trying to be by focusing on how often he goes for the backhand down the line. It might be his least reliable shot, yet he knows that in certain match-ups it becomes a key component of a strategy that can net him a few easy points.
By going down the line with his backhand, Federer forces Murray to come out of his cozy backhand corner and defend with his forehand, which more likely than not will result in a short ball that Federer can attack with his own forehand. This play has been money for Federer against players with weaker forehands throughout the years, since it forces them to defend on the run with their worst shot. In today’s match, Murray couldn’t really find an answer for Federer’s backhand down the line, and it didn’t seem like he could predict when it was coming, either.
One thing I kept being surprised by in this match was how poorly Murray was judging his own backhands. The Scot seemed utterly surprised when one of his cross-court backhands was mediocre enough for Federer to run around and belt a forehand back to him. It seemed like his brain was stuck on the simplest of gameplans: “just hit to Federer’s backhand over and over again. He’ll make a mistake!” .
Still, Murray was solid enough early on to be up a break, 4-2 in the first set. Federer looked set for a quick demise – errors off both wings were the only thing flowing from the Swiss in the early goings of the match. It was so dire for Federer that his mediocrity prompted one of the most nonsensical statements I have ever heard from a tennis commentator in my life. After Murray held for 4-2, Cliff Drysdale was wondering aloud if Roger Federer had enough firepower off his “serve, forehands and backhands”.
Read that again.
It makes no sense.
However, after Murray botched an attackable forehand at 0-15 in that seventh game and sent a brainfart backhand slice into the net shortly after, the dynamic I alluded to at the beginning of this post came into play. As Murray lost the point and went down 0-30, the crowd erupted. Murray clawed back to 30-all, but then sent a comfortable backhand passing shot well long. Federer smelled blood, and pounced at a short slice from Murray with an inside-in forehand that the Scot never saw coming.
The crowd went nuts, and the set started it’s trek towards a tiebreaker. Once there, we got a microcosm of the first set: Murray went up a minibreak 3-1 after a vintage backhand shank by Federer on a neutral ball. Mirka was shown in the stands and looked exasperated.
However, the rally dynamics outlined above came into play rather quickly: on the sixth point of the tiebreaker, score 3-2 in Murray’s favor, both men played a 22 stroke rally that ended with Federer completely outmaneuvering Murray with his inside-out forehand. The Scot never really went after the point, thinking Federer was back to his point-gifting ways. He hit one short cross-court backhand too many, and Federer made him pay, thus recovering the minibreak. .
The last key point of the set (and you could argue, the match) came a few minutes later, when Andy Murray hit a second serve at 4-5. It reminded me a lot of the 15-14 point from the historical second set tiebreaker between Federer and Safin in 2004. Here is what I wrote:
15-14, Safin: This is the type of point that we see players lose to this day: enamored with forcing an error from Federer’s backhand, they feed it pace instead of spin, and eventually they get burned.
Murray hit two or three aggressive backhands straight at Federer, and after not getting the desired result, he went for an off-balance inside-in forehand that not surprisingly ended up in the net. That gave Federer two set points, and you could argue, the match.
Roger Federer won this match by being unrelenting in his aggressiveness with the inside-out forehand, and also with his extremely effective second serve returns (a rarity for him). The Swiss navigated the difficult first few games, found his range, and pounced after each and every opportunity he had in the match (Murray never saved a break point).
Federer also made the match simple for himself, and exploited every single of the favorable match-ups that Andy Murray presents for his very powerful game.
At the same time, it surely had to help to see this kind of support in the stands:
— Ella Ling (@ellaling23) November 11, 2012
A picture says more than a thousand words, no?
In case you wonder what Murray thought about the crowd ahead of this tournament, here’s a funny picture, courtesy of the ATP site:
Would Andy Murray had won today’s match had he had a better crowd? No idea. Probably not. Surely the US Open champion needed to come out of his comfort zone to overcome the many problems he faces against an in-form Roger Federer. It was a tall task.
But as he says, “it does help when you have more support”.