If you like tennis and you enjoy traveling, this might be a very good time to buy a ticket to Asia. Last week you could have taken in an ATP match in Ho Chi Minh City or Beijing then moved onto Guangzhou or Seoul to see the women play. This week you could go to the Japan Open or Tashkent and next week stop in Moscow for the Kremlin Open before flying to Europe for the rest of the season.
It’s the indoor season in tennis land; hard courts and carpets in faraway lands for those players trying to gobble up or hold onto enough computer points to be one of eight players to qualify for the year end championships.
The tennis world has followed the model of the NBA and other sports organizations by expanding its market to Asia. The ATP year-end championships will be held in a new stadium in Shanghai. Might as well look to the east, tennis isn’t increasing in popularity here in the US.
Rafael Nadal and Guillermo Coria met in the China Open final in Beijing this week on a hard court. For a minute there I thought I misread that. Shouldn’t it be clay court with those two in the final? I’m not covering this match but I did see something interesting: a new way to pick up a tennis ball. During the warmup, Nadal walked over to a ball and flicked the ball from his left foot to his right foot then flipped it up in the air with his right foot and caught it. Even with a hacky-sack that is not an easy move.
We are in Bangkok for the Thailand Open and we’re watching the final between Roger Federer and Scottish player Andy Murray. We’ve seen plenty of Federer this year and, though it is always a pleasure to watch him play, we’re going to focus on Murray’s game. Murray beat local favorite Paradorn Srichaphan and re-ascendant American Robby Ginepri to get here, as a wild card entry no less, and it’ll be interesting to measure his game against Federer’s.
Eighteen-year-old Murray is currently ranked number 101 though he will jump into the 70’s as a result of his run in this tournament. The Tennis Channel telecast, in a slight case of misspelling, says that Murray has to “sever well” to have a chance in this match. Murray may well want to sever something by the time he is finished here today. He’s playing an opponent who’s won twenty-three consecutive finals and four straight tournaments.
Murray has scruffy hair and a long body. His sideburns go down the side of his face in a soft fuzzy line. He looks like someone who is not easily ruffled. He’s even a bit hangdog. He’s long and loose and his mouth perpetually hangs slightly open. This is a good thing, it’s a sign of relaxation. He doesn’t run all over the place and jump up and down like the irrepressible Nadal. He just gently rocks then moves when he needs to. It’s more efficient that way.
Unlike a lot of younger players, he doesn’t focus on his two handed backhand and then throw in a backhand slice just to change things up. The slice is an integral part of his game. It could be a good sign. It might mean that he is actually interested in the skill of crafting a point instead of just hitting missiles at every opportunity.
Murray is not as relaxed as looks at the beginning of the match. A lot of first serves are going into the net, a sign of tightness. Early in the game, Federer draws Murray into the net with a short slice return then passes him after Murray gets himself out of position to hit a run-around forehand approach. Federer does it again in the same game but this time Murray stays back. Smart kid.
Murray can serve and volley, he has a great short swing two-handed backhand that he flicks down the line for passing shots and he covers the court well. Twice in the first set he gets to a short Federer drop shot and flicks it crosscourt for a winner.
We’d be missing out if we completely ignored Federer’s game. His matches seldom pass without a shot that makes us repeatedly hit the rewind button. It’s a bad habit, rewind. Now when I listen to the radio in the car, I often reflexively reach out to hit rewind so I can replay a song I’ve heard or rerun a play from a football broadcast. For better or worse, AM and FM don’t have rewind yet.
Now when I listen to the radio in the car, I often reflexively reach out to hit rewind so I can replay a song I’ve heard or rerun a play from a football broadcast.
With Murray serving at 1-4, Federer runs Murray wide to the ad court twice till Murray is completely out of the court. Federer then stops and waits till Murray commits to one side of the court before hitting it to the other side. It looks like a Saturday morning cartoon. The ball seems to freeze in midair while Federer waits till the very last second to hit it.
Murray never recovers from the early break and Federer wins the first set 6-3.
Murray hasn’t figured out when he should be aggressive and when he should be defensive. At times he lets Federer run him around, at other times he forces unsuccessful winner attempts too early in the point. He also might want to find a place between relaxation and intensity. He comes out unfocused in the first two games of the second set and is down a break early again.
Still, I can see why John McEnroe thinks he’s the real deal. With Federer serving at 15-30 in the fifth game, they play a twenty-six stroke rally with every stroke in the book. Federer hits cross court, down the line, slice and topspin while Murray runs down a wide shot to his backhand and follows up a very hard backhand down the line, probably his best shot, with a gentle but deep approach then hits an even softer backhand overhead at a sharp angle to win the point. Touch, power and tactical intelligence, Murray shows it all in this point. He didn’t try to overpower Federer by going for something too early, he took it out of the rhythm of the point. That’s that comfortable place between offense and defense. Murray gets the break and evens the second set at 3-3.
This is an interesting match because it has a different look than most tennis matches played today. These players can hit the ball hard but they can also change pace and win points with touch. Federer does his cartoon freeze thing again in the sixth game: Murray hits a passing shot that just makes it over the net and Federer turns as if to hit down the line, lets the ball drop and casually flicks it cross court instead. This is not a power tennis move. For a few moments here and there, we could be watching a match from the wooden racket era.
For a few moments here and there, we could be watching a match from the wooden racket era.
If Murray wants to know when he should attack, he could watch Federer. With Murray serving at 4-4, Federer starts taking balls out of the air and coming to the net. He has Murray on the defensive. Murray responds by throws his racket and audibly expressing himself with a few choice four-letter words but he manages to hang on and hold serve with an ace and a service winner.
Federer keeps applying pressure and Murray plays loosely again to get broken and let Federer serve for the match at 6-5. Federer holds and wins the set and match, 6-3, 7-5, to get his twenty-fourth consecutive final. Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe had the previous record at twelve. When will it be time to compare Federer’s finals record to other great records in sports?
Murray’s got game. He has good tactical skills and he seems mentally solid. He had a low first service percentage and took a few games off which killed his chances of winning this match but he made good adjustments in strategy and has all the shots he needs to keep climbing up the rankings.
He will need all of these things and more if he wants to survive a career under the watchful eyes of Fleet Street as the next great hope of Great Britain.
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