he’d found a way to cool off the hottest player in the tournament on one good ankle with a mixture of moonballs, drop shots, slice forehands and a ton of heart.
In a champion’s career there are often defining moments. Sometimes a player overcomes emotional distress and manages to win an important title. Sometimes a player overcomes physical exhaustion, maybe a severe case of cramps in the searing heat at the U.S. Open. Here at Indian Wells last night, Andy Murray picked himself up off the court and played out the first defining moment of his young career in his quarterfinal match against Tommy Haas.
Murray lost the first set and had a 2-0 lead in the second when he hit a serve and volley. He lunged for a passing shot and landed badly on his ankle then crumbled to the court in pain. Haas ran over to help him and the chair umpire brought ice. Murray was in tears. He was in pain and a bit of shock. He’d landed on his hip, scratched his knee and hurt his side and he was worried that he’d re-injured his problematic ankle.
The trainer set up a chair where Murray had fallen, propped him up and treated his ankle for what must have been at least 15 minutes. ESPN showed footage of Haas’ ankle from Wimbledon in 2005. He tripped on a ball during the warm up and his ankle swelled up like a large grapefruit. Luckily for Murray, his ankle wasn’t so bad but how could he keep up if an able bodied Fernando Gonzalez went down to Haas so easily?
Here is where Murray’s genius comes in. Haas described it very well after the match:
Well, for one, he moves really well. He knows where to be most of the time. But it’s actually incredible how slow he plays… You know, it’s almost sometimes like a couple of rallies are almost – you think you’re back in the juniors.
And that captures the match perfectly because here was Murray with compromised movement yet he managed to pop up in the right place at the right time. In the media room we were trying to think of another player like Murray. We batted around a few names before I realized the obvious answer: Brad Gilbert.
My memory is not that great, post-menopausal memory loss I suspect, but as resourceful as Gilbert was, Murray does him one better. Many times I saw Murray hit a forehand squash shot, which is usually a desperation shot, before I realized that he was actively using a forehand slice. He explained it like this:
And then, after ten minutes, it wasn’t my ankle that was hurting, it was my side because I’d fallen, you know, so hard on it. And it was quite hard to push off on my right leg for the serve and the balls on my forehand and that’s why I had to slice quite a lot on my forehands.
He also played the points of his life. He was serving for the second set when Haas hit an approach deep to the corner. Murray barely got to it and hit a lob that landed in the deepest part of the opposite corner. That was frustrating enough but he followed it up with a drop shot that left the media room in an uproar and Haas muttering to himself. At 4-4 in the third set he ran in and hit a fantastic passing shot off a Haas drop shot. Slow, maybe, but more than fast enough.
Murray was wearing Haas out with his rope-a-dope game. Haas took an injury time out for cramps late in the third set and had trouble serving in the tiebreaker. Still, he got two match points but couldn’t close it out. Murray hit one more passing shot and he’d done the improbable, he’d found a way to cool off the hottest player in the tournament on one good ankle with a mixture of moonballs, drop shots, slice forehands and a ton of heart.
Despite the bitter loss, Tommy Haas came out of this match looking good too. He has a well deserved reputation for being a self-centered guy who throws temper tantrums when things aren’t going his way, but he ran over to help Murray when he went down – unlike Maria Sharapova who stood behind the baseline and bounced a ball while Tatiana Golovin lay writhing in pain from a twisted ankle in Miami last year – and in the media session after the match he said this:
I’ve had some problems in the past and twisted my ankle and things like that. So you always worry about your opponent and want to make sure he’s fine.
What a sweetie. Haas is now 28. He suffered through two shoulder surgeries and a significant absence from the tour to climb back to the top ten. He also struggled through a horrific motorcycle accident that severely injured his father. He’s not likely to take over for Andre Agassi as the tour’s elder statesman any time soon but he comes out of this match looking a lot less like the self-centered tennis star and a lot more like the concerned veteran who’s overcome more than a few problems himself.