If the enthusiastic Madrileños had had their way, Sunday’s final at the Mutua Madrileña Masters would have pitched the game’s two greats against each other, so that Rafael Nadal could conquer Roger Federer, and bring a repeat of this year’s epic Wimbledon final to Spain’s biggest tournament.
Nadal had started the week by finally receiving the ATP No.1 trophy, the first time the Spaniard has officially acknowledged his achievement since he toppled his erstwhile rival off the top spot in August.
Federer, meanwhile, had kept organisers and fans on tenterhooks as to whether he would or wouldn’t compete. Brushing aside this speculation just two days before the start of the tournament, Federer displayed all his old pomp as he romped through his opening matches, while Rafa did what was expected, bounding and bouncing his way around Madrid’s indoor arena, despite dropping the odd set here and there. The Madrileños could scarcely contain their excitement.
But come the end of the week, Madrid’s tennis fans were on their feet applauding a completely different player, not their beloved Rafa, but Britain’s increasingly beloved Andy Murray. The past three months have marked Murray’s transformation from a player not yet achieving his potential, to a player quite vehemently living up to all the promise and the hype. Whether the British like him or not, there is no denying that Murray is a defiantly good tennis player. No one controls a rally from six feet behind the baseline the way he does. Most would not even attempt to do so.
A month ago, Federer outplayed and out-mastered Murray on one of the biggest stages in the game of tennis. Federer’s pristine performance at Flushing Meadows in the US Open final was the finest tennis he has played all year. It was a stark realisation for Murray that he had a long way to go.
But the speed at which he appears to have taken this lesson on board is astounding. Playing in the Madrid semi-final against the world No.2, it was Murray who had every shot, spin and placement idea available to him, rallying from a set down to beat Federer for the third time in his career. Cynics will say the previous two victories have their caveats. They would argue that the first, in Cincinnati two years ago, was against a Federer worn out after a fourth consecutive Wimbledon title and yet another Masters shield in Canada, while the second, in Dubai earlier this year, saw Federer undoubtedly weakened by glandular fever. There are no such excuses for Murray’s win last Saturday, which elevates the Scot to a 3-2 lead in their head-to-head stats.
Although Federer had wings firmly attached to his feet from the off, hitting twice as many clean winners as Murray to take the first set, the Scot is not the impetuous player who once let such a deficit sink him in the past. Instead, re-grouping in a moment, he decided it was his turn to turn on the aggression.
Arguably one of the most self-analytical players on the tour, Murray recognises that he cannot let Federer wind up for the winners, he has to fight fire with fire if he is to unravel the Swiss maestro’s game. The ability to play the killer shot when required is something he has consistently worked on, and none more so than on his serve, which topped 140 mph and yielded only three break points against Federer.
Murray’s level of play prompted the 13-time grand slam champion to say, “Andy is like me”, a series of words which speak as loudly as the Scot’s prowess on court. “He is still fiery, which he is supposed to be,” said Federer. “I just think you need to give young guys time to learn…you’d rather see a guy fighting through it for a year or two… You can see how it is before and how it is after. I share that in common with Andy.” Federer does not give out such statements lightly.
If one could get more impressive than beating one of the game’s greatest, Murray’s ability to handle being the favourite in only his second Masters Series final was just that. Gilles Simon, the 23-year-old who today becomes the French No.1, may have been exhausted, but he, not Murray, was the one with nothing to lose. His “I don’t care how many match points you get, I’ll be the last one standing” attitude was one of the highlights of the tournament, and his 3 hour and 22 minute victory over Nadal, despite dashing the Madrilenos’ dreams, has been applauded as the match of the week.
The final was not quite such a firecracker. Murray said that beating Federer had understandably taken a lot out of him, while at times the Frenchman looked as though his legs would literally give way beneath him. In addition, it was Simon’s first ever Masters Series final and only Murray’s second, so it is not surprising that it was a bit of a drawn-out climax. The British No.1 did not look as sure of himself tactically, tending to let Simon dictate the play a little too often rather than forcing the issue himself. The serve was the deciding factor for Murray, who didn’t face a break point, converting one himself to take the first set, and closing out the match in a second set tie-break.
It may not have had the thrills and spills of either of the semi-finals, but what mattered for Murray was the win, in which, incidentally, he made a bit of history. Murray is the first British player to win four titles in a season in the Open era, overtaking Mark Cox’s three titles in 1975, and he is also the first Brit to win two Masters Series titles. Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, although both achieved a ranking of No.4 in the world, could only manage one apiece. That Murray, at 21, has won two back-to-back, is even more astounding.
For Nadal, who was denied victory in Madrid’s hard court arena for the last time before the tournament moves to the new clay ‘Magic Box’ next year, there was some consolation. His semi-final appearance was enough to ensure that he will be the first Spaniard to end the year as No.1, ending Federer’s four-year domination of that position. With his eight titles, which include two Grand Slams, and a win-loss record of 80-10, no one can deny that Nadal has been the player of the year.
But back briefly to Mr Murray. Last year, when the Scot went into the Australian Open on the back of a title in Doha, we Brits got a bit overexcited, waxing lyrical about how he was in the best form and position to win the tournament. This year, it might actually be true.