Mark Atkinson: One door slammed shut but another will open . .
BACK in 2005, when Andy Murray first broke on to the scene as a scraggly, moody teenager, I made a bet with a friend that he would never win a grand slam title. Despite his agonising defeat to Roger Federer in Sunday’s Wimbledon final, I’m expecting to pay out.
Detach yourself from the despair of watching Murray lose and it’s clear to see that yet again, he has made progress. Even as the tears flowed and his emotions spilled out on to Centre Court, Murray knew that. “I’m getting closer,” he stammered. And that’s the fact that Murray, and his fans, must realise. He is getting closer.
Federer may have an aura of smarminess around him when he speaks following victory, but he talks sense and his prediction that Murray will win “at least one grand slam” in his career has to be taken seriously. Federer is a doyen of grass, the king of Wimbledon. Yet he knew he’d been forced to unpack his best tennis on Centre Court and overhaul Murray, who took the first set and had Federer on the ropes in the second.
The fact that Murray won the opening set was a milestone in itself. This was his fourth grand slam final yet in his defeats to Federer at the US Open in 2008 and in the Australian Open final in 2010, Murray didn’t win a set. In 2011, when he met Novak Djokovic in Melbourne, he was crushed 3-0. Getting on the board, sets-wise, is a vital marker for him. That particular monkey is off his back.
In fact, one could argue this was the one final where Murray played close to his very best. Both finals in Melbourne have seen Murray fail to show his true talents. The loss to Federer, in 2008 at Flushing Meadows, seems almost a lifetime ago, but that was his debut slam final and Federer was still in his pomp. Not many dethrone a legend at the first time of asking.
Murray, in defeat, played very well on Sunday. He came out the blocks like a whippet and startled Federer by being aggressive. It took all of the Swiss’ powers to reduce the deficit. There were key moments in the match when Murray failed to break Federer in the second and third sets, but that Murray had his opponent on the ropes in a final is encouraging in itself.
The one failing Murray had was that he failed to close out key service games at 30-0 up at 6-5 in the second and that 20-minute game at 2-3 in the third set, where he squandered a 40-0 lead. Murray made errors but Federer was at his fluid, flamboyant best when his openings arose.
In short, he’s never been this close or competitive in a slam final. His record now reads 0-4 in such ties but at 25-years-old, there will be more chances.
Since the arrival of coach Ivan Lendl, we’ve seen a colder, more focused Murray on the court. His forehand has improved and his serve has more fizz and variety. Part of the reason why he became the first British man to reach the Wimbledon final in 74 years is that he served so well against top-ten players like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and David Ferrer. In recent years, Murray has fallen to Stanislas Wawrinka and Tomas Berdych in slams because of his serve, but he seems less vulnerable to such “dangerous floaters” now.
The season now gets even more exciting for Murray. He’ll take a well-earned holiday with girlfriend Kim Sears but after that, he’s got the Olympics in little under three weeks back at the All-England club, where he has a fine shout at a medal. Then it’s the American hard-court swing, a part of the calendar Murray does well in. And then, it’s the US Open.
Murray says himself that the slick blue courts of Flushing Meadows bring out his best tennis. He loves the American lifestyle and enjoys being in New York. The quick conditions, the loud, blarey music, the night matches and the raucous atmosphere really suit him. He’ll go in as one of the favourites for that event.
And if he doesn’t win there? Well, as long as he can stay fit, Murray will be on the premises for at least four more years yet. His back may have caused him gyp recently, but all players have aches and strains in a tough season. Federer is 30, and won’t be around that much longer. Rafael Nadal is still dominant on clay but susceptible elsewhere. Djokovic is perhaps his main threat, but as the semi-final in Melbourne this year showed, where Murray lost 7-5 in the fifth, the gap is closing. Outside of those three players, and away from clay, Murray is streets ahead of the rest.
There will be more tears to come for Murray and his fans. At his current rate though, you wouldn’t bet against those tears of woe being replaced by tears of joy.
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Thursday 23 May 2013
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