Roger Federer dusted off Novak Djokovic before I was barely conscious and Andy Murray blasted to a two set lead over Rafael Nadal before tropical storm Hannah interrupted.
I drove an hour and a half for a dinner date last night and got home late, and by the time I rolled out of bed this morning, the first semifinal at the US Open was already in the fourth set. Not only that but, curiously, the second semifinal was already a set old. Wha’ happened?
Tropical storm Hannah was on her way and the storm switched everything up. And now I’m in trouble on two accounts because of her. Our writer Lexa Lee made it back to her New Orleans home but the cable is out again today and I missed the Roger Federer – Novak Djokovic match which I was supposed to record. I’m in deep do do over that I can tell you.
The semifinal between Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal was also messed up. The organizers switched the match from the main Arthur Ashe Stadium to the secondary Louis Armstrong Stadium and it seemed to bother Rafa the most. Maybe it was the incessant drone of airplanes Hannah rerouted or the early start time, but Rafa was out of sorts. Things were already strange because Federer actually beat Djokovic in four sets and no doubt that unsettled Rafa as much as it surprised everyone else.
Everything wasn’t messed up. The top four players were in the semifinals. Murray wasn’t a top four seed but he’s now the fourth ranked player on tour due to his semifinal run and he was playing like it. He hit aces and controlled the match from behind the baseline while Rafa was misfiring.
Murray was taking advantage of the situation with his full complement of court smarts. Rafa was down a break at 2-4 in the first set and Murray was playing peek-a-boo. He rolled a shot deep then unloaded a flat downhill backhand winner to the same side of the court where Rafa was standing. Don’t underestimate the advantage of height for a shot like that. How often do you see Rafa hit anything downhill? Murray then rolled a soft return deep and Rafa set up on the deuce side of the court to run around his backhand if the opportunity arose. But it didn’t. Murray immediately hit a flat winner down the line and he had break point.
When you hit a wide serve, most people return it cross court to give themselves time to get back into the point. Murray didn’t do that. On the break point, he returned a wide serve by curling it into the sideline corner of the service box on his side of the court, a very tough shot. Rafa volleyed it crosscourt but that left Murray with an open court if he got to the ball and he did. He now had his second break in the set to go up 5-2 and served it out to go up a set.
I can’t tell you how much I appreciate Murray. I’ve read Brad Gilbert’s books about working with Andre Agassi and listened to Agassi talk about his opponents and he missed nothing. But his game was simple. He did his best to get his opponent moving while he set up in the middle of the court and directed traffic. Murray doesn’t have Agassi’s power and isn’t quite as good a returner – who is? – but he’s got much more game. He can dictate with his serve, come to the net, out-defend most opponents, and play deep or short.
Murray also has more hitting options. He can loop the ball or flatten it out. He reminds me of the baseball pitcher Greg Maddux, a sure Hall of Famer who’s known for his combination of hard, soft, and in between pitch speeds combined with intimate knowledge of his opponents hitting tendencies.
We’ve seen Rafa start off slowly before then progressively tighten his grip. If he wins the second set and gets a break in the third, we’re off to get a snack or return an important phone call because the match is over. And he did wake up in the beginning of the second set, but Murray looped another ball to Rafa’s backhand and followed it up with another flat winner down the line for two break points in the third game of the set.
Rafa held on but Murray got two more break point on Nadal’s next service game. You knew Murray was thinking out there because he wasn’t hitting those dumb drop shots and when he did hit one on the second break point, he paid for it. Rafa held again but Murray was dictating and that defense! Rafa served wide at 4-4 then hit to the opposite corner and came in behind it. Murray not only got to the ball but he whipped a passing shot crosscourt and just beyond Rafa’s reach.
By the time they arrived at the second set tiebreaker, Rafa had fought off a few more break points and Murray was hitting more errors. Rafa was up 5-4 in the tiebreaker and it looked like he was about to turn the tide. But he returned a Murray serve and the ball ticked the top of the net and fell back on his side of the court. There were two interesting things about this. We already saw that Murray was playing deep behind the baseline and now he had tried to outkick Rafa. That serve Rafa muffed kicked so high that Rafa couldn’t get it back over the net. Many times players are egotistical enough to try and beat an opponent at their own game and they fail miserably. Pete Sampras – the ultimate serve and vollyer – tried it at the French Open. He tried to beat clay court players from the baseline. How’s that for making life unnecessarily difficult? But Murray was succeeding. As for the second interesting thing, it’s usually Rafa who wins that kind of critical point then goes on to run out the match for a victory, Murray has been known to be suspect in such situations.
Murray won the last two points of the tiebreaker and now he was up two sets to none and I wasn’t sure what to think. Did I want a Federer-Murray final or a five set barnburner? Whichever it was I wanted it to be a high level of play but Murray fell apart in the first game of the third set and Rafa broke him. Murray pulled himself together to win the next two service games but some of the airplane sounds weren’t airplanes, they were gathering thunderstorms. Hannah finally hit land and tennis was finished for the day.
Who benefits most from the break? Could go either way. Murray looked like he was getting tired – he was starting to rush his shots – so he could probably use a rest. But he was also cracking serves and ground strokes and who knows if he’ll have those when they resume. And now Nadal’s team knows Murray’s strategy. Nadal gets another day of rest and gets to start over but his momentum was just picking up and now it’s been interrupted.
I’m guessing Rafa can’t take three straight sets from Murray and we won’t have the Grapple in the Apple, we’ll have the Donnybrook in the Borough. What do you think?
Don’t be like me, check your local listing from here on. The men’s semifinal will continue on Sunday afternoon, the women’s final is on Sunday night, and the men’s final gets pushed to Monday.
By the way, while you’re twiddling your thumbs as we wait for tennis to resume, take a shot at this from tennis Addictionary.