FOR generations, British tennis players have lived in the shadow of Fred Perry.
Their every move on court has been compared with the late, great Fred and, every time, they have been shown to be wanting. All that could be about to change.
Should Andy Murray beat Roger Federer in their Australian Open semi-final this morning – and he has beaten him ten times before in 19 meetings – he will equal Perry’s record of 106 grand slam match wins.
And, should he go on to win the title in Melbourne, it will be the Scot’s achievements that will be the benchmark for future generations. If winning the US Open lifted a huge burden from Murray’s shoulders, becoming the nation’s first champion since Perry in 1936, then the chance to beat the great man’s record has whetted his appetite.
“It would be great,” Murray said. “I think he missed quite a lot of years of playing when he went professional. That kind of changed [things] a little bit. But, yeah, winning matches in grand slams isn’t easy and I’m surprised that it’s that many. I think Roger just got to 250 the other night. A lot of the guys now have got some unbelievable records so I’ll try to keep winning. It would be nice at the end of my career if I could get to the 200 mark. I think that’s a good target.”
But beating Federer is no easy task. The two like playing each other. Murray’s unique skills present a new and different challenge for Federer, while Murray enjoys the opportunity to test himself against one of the greatest players the sport has ever seen. And he enjoys beating the old GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) even more. As yet, he has not found a way to win those matches at grand slams but then Murray has only ever played Federer in major championship finals, never in the earlier rounds.
Their last grand slam battle was in the Wimbledon final and for all that it ended in tears for Murray, he knew he had taken a huge step forward in his career. With the whole country watching, waiting and hoping, he won a set, he had chances to win another and then, when the weather closed in and the roof was closed, there was no disgrace in losing to the best indoor player in the world. Murray soaked up all those experiences and disappointments and used them to his advantage. He said: “I learned a lot from that match. I went through some things in that match that I really hadn’t been through before – I won my first set in a slam final. I had my chances in the second set and then there was the delay with the roof.
“Regardless of what I said at the time, there was pretty significant pressure on me on that day as well, so it is very unlikely I will play another match in my career where I was under as much pressure as that, I think. I was very emotional at the end but I felt like I handled the match well and I think I handled the situation pretty well and, obviously, played some of my best tennis just a few weeks after that at the Olympics.”
By the time he came back for the Olympics, Murray was a new man. Confident, aggressive and roared on by a partisan crowd, he swept all before him. And, when he faced Federer again in the final, he wiped the floor with him.
At last, Murray had proved himself in a major final against the most major of players. The Wimbledon final had been the springboard for his Olympic success and the Olympics proved to be the springboard for his US Open victory. Now he believes that 2012 will be the springboard for the second phase of his career, the phase of winning big titles and challenging for the No 1 spot. Beating Federer in a final was a game changer.
“I think the first time I played him at the US Open [in 2008], I didn’t feel ready,” Murray said. “The Wimbledon final was a good one – it was a very close match and it could have gone the other way. And the final here [in Melbourne in 2010], again I had quite a few chances in that match, too. Maybe I’ve just not converted as many chances as I needed to against him in the slams and that’s where his experience has probably told.
“But I think the match at the Olympics was good for me mentally. To have played him over five sets and to have won quickly and convincingly was good for me to realise that once you get ahead of these guys you really need to stay on top of them – and that’s the difference between winning and losing against the best players over five sets.”
Murray’s form has been patchy and scratchy over the past ten days but, against Jeremy Chardy in the quarter-finals, he showed signs that he is itching to open the throttle and start playing like a champion. He has given himself more than a few dressings down in the last couple of rounds but they are no more than the sign of the world’s third best player wanting to get his teeth into a proper match and show what he can do.
This morning’s encounter with Federer (play gets underway around 8.30am) will give him ample opportunity to do just that. “I think that’s why I got a bit frustrated on the court in my last couple of matches because I didn’t feel I was playing my best,” he said. “The week before the tournament I was playing really, really well in practice. I practised with a lot of really good tough players and I prepared really well.
“I was hitting the ball very well in Brisbane and I was starting to play better towards the end of that tournament. Then a couple of matches here I wasn’t quite feeling and wasn’t quite in the zone I would have liked to have been in. You just have to trust that, when you are really pushed and tested in matches, that your best game is going to come out.”
And, if his best game does come out, he will be on his way to overtaking Perry and setting new goals for the next generation of young, British hopefuls to aim for.
Big match guide
Murray is the only player left in the men’s singles not to have dropped a set and has been on court far less than his remaining title rivals. The draw has certainly gone in the Scot’s favour, with Gilles Simon the only seeded player he has faced, and the Frenchman was far from his best. Murray was impressive in beating another Frenchman, Jeremy Chardy, in the quarter-finals, but Federer will be a huge step up. Murray is unbeaten so far in 2013 and has won his last 12 grand slam matches.
Federer has had to negotiate a series of significant obstacles, including young guns Bernard Tomic and Milos Raonic and, on Tuesday, seventh seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarter-finals. Federer had been imperious during the first four rounds but was pushed all the way to a fifth set by Tsonga before eventually prevailing. It was a high-quality match and, although it went the distance, there were not many chinks in the great Swiss player’s armour.
Murray has a narrow lead in head-to-head clashes, having won 10 out of 19 previous meetings. His most significant victory came in the Olympic gold medal match in August when the Scot handed Federer his worst-ever beating on grass, with Murray losing only seven games in three sets on Wimbledon’s Centre Court. It was the first time he had come out on top in a best-of-five-sets match and came four weeks after he lost to Federer in the Wimbledon final. It was the third time they had met in a grand slam final and the first time Murray had won a set. Federer won their most recent match in the semi-finals of the World Tour Finals in London in November and this will be the first time they have faced each other at a grand slam before the final.
Murray has often frustrated Federer with his ability to mix up his shots. However, on the big stages it has normally been the Swiss who has come out on top and, while Federer may not be the force he once was, his highest level is still above anyone else’s in the game. He drops from those heights more often than he used to and his forehand breaks down more frequently, although his backhand has improved throughout his career. The Swiss is also slower than he once was and can be vulnerable when pulled out wide on his forehand. Murray has improved since he began working with Ivan Lendl just over a year ago. His forehand is now a big weapon, and his second serve, while still not a strength, has an added kick. Murray also has shown a greater ability to seize the moment, something he will have to do again to make a third final in Melbourne.