Monday, 9 March 2015

Grand Slam Down Under

While we have been bracing the bitter cold here in Scotland, a man from Dunblane has been on a mission down under. Andy Murray was bidding to be the first Brit to win the Australian Open since the days of Fred Perry. Having already claimed two majors in Wimbledon and the US Open, a win in Oz would have been the third leg in completing the career grand slam. While he had already reached the three finals here, the trophy eluded him each time as he felt the cost of playing in the same era as some of the finest to play the game.

Murray came in off the back of a disappointing 2014 season where he had been riddled by injuries as well as splitting up with his head coach Ivan Lendl, and his assistant Dani Valveradu, yet after his usual training block in Miami which injury deprived him of the year before, he looked to be back to full fitness for the new year. His warm up tournaments went well and he went on to produce his best form in over a year.

Indeed the draw was not kind, with two of the men who had limited Murray’s grand slam haul in the same half as him. Rafael Nadal, who Murray hadn’t beaten in 3 years as well as Roger Federer, the greatest player of all time who had inflicted Murray’s heaviest defeat ever just 2 months previously. To add to what already looked a mammoth task, he was drawn to play his Wimbledon conqueror Grigor Dimitrov in the 4th round.

The draw offered the consolation that at least Murray’s opening rounds looked simple enough. He sailed through the first round against a qualifier before playing home favourite Matosovic in the second. While the players were on good terms, the British press did not take too kindly to what the Aussie had to say about Murray’s new coach Amelie Mauresmo, a high profile appointment as it was almost unheard of for someone in the men’s game to appoint a female coach. Indeed this might have shown in Matosovic’s remarks on the subject  ‘I couldn’t do it because I don’t think that highly of the woman’s game’ he was quoted as saying ‘it’s all equal rights these days, politically correct.’ While he apologised soon after, it gave the match further weight yet Murray again cruised through to the third round, furthermore, on the same night Roger Federer suffered a shock loss, his earliest ever in Melbourne and a result that meant he would not potentially lock horns with Murray in the quarter finals.

Indeed Murrays route to the final was looking increasingly clear as, while Federer was already out, Nadal was taken to five sets against a man who had won half as many grand slam matches as Nadal had titles. The Spaniard looked to be struggling with the hard surface of the court and odds on him winning the tournament lengthened. After his convincing third round win against Joao Sousa many felt Murray to be the second favourite, after World Number 1 and title shoo in, Novak Djokovic.

But first Murray would have to pass the challenge of Bulgarian-and a man tipped to be a future World no.1-Grigor Dimitrov. It was a match of extremely high quality, arguably the most absorbing of the tournament and appropriately played under the lights late at night in the Rod Laver Arena. It pitted Dimitrov’s attacking, flamboyant yet error strewn style against Murray’s more counter attacking one. The clash of approaches to the game allowed for some superb points. While the two players split the first two sets in a match of many momentum shifts, Murray took the third. However, through some superb shot making from Dimitrov he found himself a game away from forcing a decider before his opponent contrived to reel off 5 in a row, win the match and have his friend from off the court smashing his racket on the floor.

The win for Murray set up a clash with another Aussie, Nick Kyrgios. While Murray and Dimitrov had earlier been trading blows on Rod Laver, not far away at Hisense Arena, Kyrgios had come down from the brink to beat the man who shut down Federer a few nights ago, Andreas Seppi. After a marathon match, Australia was able to cheer its first representative in the Quarter Finals down under in 10 years. The excitement was so much that for a few minutes, Murray and Dimitrov’s match on Rod Laver was interrupted by celebrations from the crowd as news of Kyrgios’ result filtered through. The locals felt their man had a real chance of beating Murray just as he had disposed of Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon. However, for all the build-up and intense media attention the match received, Murray made sure it wasn’t anything but yet another straight sets win for him with occasional inspired moments of brilliance from the young Kyrgios who still showed real promise. Murray was through to only his second grand slam semi since he won Wimbledon.

Waiting for him in the semis was not Rafael Nadal, who two nights before he had been totally outclassed in his quarter final by the remarkably consistent and dangerous Thomas Berdych. Both players generally got on well together but this turned into a spicy contest, a big reason being the presence of Berdych’s coach, a certain Dani Valveradu, who had been part of Murray’s team for many years until they went separate ways in November with Valveradu’s way turning out to be coaching a player ranked just a place below Murray. After Berdych took the opening set, while the players were returning to their seats he appeared to say something as he crossed Murray’s path, later found to simply be “well done Thomas’. While it was harmless, it led to the umpire having words with both players and Berdych buckling under the heightened tension as he lost the second set in a whitewash and was similarly outclassed in the 3rd and 4th.

In his post-match interview, Murray used the opportunity to thank his coach Mauresmo as well as hit back at all the stick the pair had taken since beginning their arrangement, saying ‘We’ve show that women can be very good coaches as well’, a comment that further endeared him to the Melbourne crowd and earned him deserved praise from all corners of tennis and outside of it too. He was through to an 8th Slam final, his fourth in Melbourne, numbers that match legends of the game. Despite this, someone else in the Murray camp seemed to be attracting attention. Instead there were clips going around of Murray’s fiancĂ© Kim Sears using some “colourful and expressive language” to describe Berdych. While most of the world reacted with amusement, some felt it was out of order, Murray put out a statement saying how anything could be said in the heat of the moment and was determined to put focus on the small matter of a grand slam final between himself and Novak Djokovic.

The pair were 2-2 in major finals with Djokovic taking both of the ones in Australia. Rarely were their matches short and they were known to play brutal matches lasting four or even five hours. While Djokovic was the favourite as he always would be, the final was expected to be one of high quality. The Serb had won 7 out of the last 8 matches between the two, partially aided by Murray’s lack of fitness the year before. After his semi-final victory, Murray admitted that it would be a shock for him to go all the way, a testament to Djokovic’s record in Melbourne, just one defeat since 2010. Nevertheless, the stage was set for what was expected to be a competitive final at least. 


Indeed the first set gave the world exactly what it expected and what the neutrals wanted, two super fit athletes sharing long, brutal, absorbing rally’s, with each man’s serve counting for almost nothing as both were such brilliant returners. It brought back memories of their meetings in the US Open final of 2012 and Aussie final in 2013 due to the extremely long points, regular breaks of serve and the fact the set went to a tiebreak. After letting his early lead in the set slip, Djokovic prevailed in it as he converted a set point moments after Murray missed a routine winner. The first set was clocked at around 90 minutes, around as lengthy as you could hope for. 


Indeed this monstrous standard of play was kept up in the second set with yet more energy sapping points as well as another tiebreak. The only irregularity was an attempted court invasion by protestors forcing the players to retreat into their chairs. It came at an appropriate time for Murray as it disrupted Djokovic’s rhythm while he was in the ascendancy and allowed the Scot to haul himself into a tiebreak. This time Murray did not blink, earning four set points and converting his third to level up the contest. The two had now played close to the equivalent of two football matches back-to-back and had set themselves up for a classic encounter. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. 


When Murray broke Djokovic’s serve at the very start of the crucial third set, he was in the lead for the very first time, yet from here it was all downhill. The general consensus was that the final two sets were an absolute anti-climax to a brilliant opening two sets and tournament as a whole. Djokovic took 12 of the last 13 games to prevail with Murray having a meltdown. He was seen directing verbal’s at his camp and taking a step back into his old ways, indeed it reflected in the score line with Djokovic taking the last set in a 6-0 whitewash. The final two sets put together were shorter than either of the first two, showing the sharp dip in quality from Murray, a very strange end to a final, but one that produced a deserved winner in Novak Djokovic. His fifth title in Melbourne, a joint record. Despite his meltdown, it was a positive two weeks for Murray who rose into the top 4 of the world rankings for the first time since before his injury problems, shrugged off criticism about his choice of coach and looked fully fit for the first time in a year. Indeed a few weeks later Murray surpassed Nadal in the world rankings and as of late February is the world Number 3. A lot to look forward to in 2015.


By Adeel Ali

No comments:

Post a Comment