IT was only two weeks ago that Andy Murray was cheekily scribbling on a TV camera lens in Paris: “Bad year!”.
But in 56 painful minutes on Thursday night, Roger Federer killed that idea stone dead. He tore Murray to shreds 6-0, 6-1 to eliminate the Scot from the Tour Finals and show him just how far behind the top men he still is. By the end of the match, Federer was playing exhibition tennis – he could do no wrong and Murray could not touch him. All the hard work to get to the London showcase event had been for nothing, all the confidence he had built in winning three smaller tour titles on his way to the O2 Arena had been shattered.
It was the heaviest defeat of Murray’s career. Novak Djokovic had duffed him up 6-1, 6-0 in Miami back in 2007 but Murray was injured at the time. On Thursday he was fit, he was ready and he thought he had a chance. And he was battered from the third point of the match until the last (Federer missed a couple of forehands in the opening seconds of the duel, his only real errors of the evening). It did not matter that Murray had turned his season around in the past six months and worked his way back to full fitness. The lasting memory of 2014 would forever be those miserable 56 minutes in London’s east end.
“To be honest I don’t care what anyone else says about it, it’s about how I deal with it,” Murray said. “I’m extremely disappointed and, when I look back, I’ll still be disappointed. I put a lot of hard work into this year and it’s been tough, it’s been a hard year.
“But while I won’t take positives from the match, by looking at it and using the disappointment, I can use it as motivation for next year.
“I like to compete, I’m a competitor, so to lose a match like that is always going to be hard to take no matter how tough a road it was to make it here.”
Greg Rusedski was brutal in his assessment of Murray’s performance. He thought that the former Wimbledon champion had gone backwards since his split with Ivan Lendl, he was too passive, he was not stamping his authority on lesser opponents and was merely hoping he could find his best tennis when he faced the top players.
Murray looked taken aback at this critique of his evening’s work. He knew he had not played well – and a 35 per cent strike rate on his first serve in the opening set was only one of many gruesome statistics – but Federer was playing on another plane. He served and volleyed, he feathered the drop shot, he pounded the forehand – he did everything to perfection and he made it all look so easy.
“Greg obviously has his opinions, on many things, and his job is to express those opinions on TV,” Murray said. “That doesn’t mean I have to agree with him, though. But in a match like today, well, wow, what do you want me to do? The guy was half-volleying the ball inside the baseline, so you had no time to react. The ball was coming off the middle of his racket on every single shot, so I’d have been interested to see how Greg would have approached it.”
It is true that Lendl gave Murray a new steely resolve and belief in his own abilities and, true enough, Murray was more aggressive under old Stone Face’s guidance. But Lendl stood beside Murray during the good times. In their first 18 months, the pair collected two grand slam titles and an Olympic gold medal but the end of last year was lost to the Scot’s back surgery and after two months of this year, Lendl quit. How Lendl would have coped with Murray’s rehabilitation, comeback and the months of frustration as he regained full fitness, we will never know.
Amelie Mauresmo has steered her charge away from those difficult times and pushed him back towards the top of the rankings. Now she and Murray have seven weeks of the off-season to plan for next year. The time to judge her credentials as a coach will be next November when everyone is back in London for the Tour Finals – will he be in the mix for the silverware or will he be Federer’s whipping boy? The bitter memory of Thursday night will take a while to fade but Murray needs to cheer up quickly as, this weekend, he will be the best man at Ross Hutchins’ wedding – and the speech is still not written. Hutchins, Murray’s best friend, battled Hodgkin’s lymphoma last year, while, in May this year, Elena Baltacha succumbed to liver cancer. After those events, a straight-sets cuffing from Roger Federer seems trivial.
“Over the next few days when I talk about tennis, this match will still hurt a little bit,” Murray said. “Any time I’ve had tough losses in the past I’ve had maybe three or four days and then I’ve been fine and I’ve been able to deal with it from there. Ross and Elena’s situation put things into perspective. This is tennis, this is my job and I put a lot of work and effort into it, so when you have a day like today it hurts, because I care deeply about what I do. But at the end of the day, it’s just sport. Life goes on, I still have the same family, the same friends and that’s not going to change.”