Sweet Sixteen Down Under

15:04 Sun 31 Jan 2010. Updated: 01:24 01 Feb 2010
[, ]

Roger Federer put more space between first and second place in men’s tennis history by collecting his (record) 16th Grand Slam victory, 6–3, 6–4, 7–6 (11) over Andy Murray last night. Pete Sampras has 14 Grand Slams, and now it seems as if Federer will be looking to match the all-time greats in women’s tennis—Margaret Court has 24.

I thought it would take Federer four sets to overcome Murray, and maybe five. Instead, Federer again underscored the disparity between his game and everyone else’s.

He looked strong at the outset, going up a break and serving at 2–1, but at 15–30 he played two points where he controlled the rallies but tried to give himself too much margin on his putaways, letting Murray display his great defensive prowess twice to earn the break. Both players seemed tight after that, but with Murray serving at 3–4 (and struggling to find his first serve) Federer upped his game to break and then hold.

Murray wasn’t playing the aggressive tennis he used to take out Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals, but was instead playing his more typical counterpunching game. This didn’t seem to trouble Federer much, and Federer seemed content, most of the time, to just wait for his chances in rallies. Federer spent many of the rallies patiently waiting for his chance to be aggressive, and his confidence that Murray wouldn’t be able to hurt him while he did that was definitely validated by how the match went.

Serving was a huge factor in the match. Murray’s first serve was simply not good enough in the first two sets, while Federer’s was both consistent and a lifesaver in clutch situations—he saved a ton of break points with strong serving, just as he did at key times in his quarterfinal against Davydenko.

In the second set, Federer was completely dominant. I didn’t think he’d make the mistake he made in the 2009 US Open final, where he relaxed too early and let Del Potro right back into the match, and he didn’t. His form did slip at the start of the third, helped along by Murray changing his approach to be more aggressive and to simply hit his groundstrokes harder. Federer had some trouble with this and Murray looked to be making a fight of it, and served for the set at 5–3. Federer then raised his game again to break, and it went to a tiebreak.

Third Set Tiebreak

The tiebreak was the best part of the match, full of tension and some excellent tennis. Murray started out strong, using powerful groundstrokes to gain a 3–1 lead, but Federer got back to being on serve and went ahead 4–3.

An excellent aggressive forehand brought Murray even, and his second ace of the tiebreak got him to 5–4. Federer attempted to come to net with a forehand approach that wasn’t quite good enough, and Murray’s excellent passing shot was too much for him to handle, giving Murray two set points at 6–4.

Federer saved the first with an absolutely ridiculous crosscourt forehand winner, but Murray then got to serve at 6–5. His serve was very good, and Federer just barely got it back; Murray pinned him in his backhand corner, eliciting a short slice, but Murray then missed the down-the-line forehand that could have won the set for him (although Federer might well have reached it), bringing them even at 6–6; Federer had saved two set points.

Federer overhit a forehand to give Murray another chance at the set, and at 7–6 they had a long rally that Murray had chances in: he fired a powerful forehand to Federer’s forehand corner, forcing Federer to make a very impressive “squash shot” forehand slice get, then pinned Federer in his backhand corner and came in, but couldn’t quite handle Federer’s attempted pass and put a backhand volley just wide. 7–7; Federer had saved a third set point.

Federer created his first match point with an ace, but couldn’t convert on Murray’s serve as Murray got him on the run—Federer attempted a very difficult running forehand pass and missed it by maybe an inch or two. 8–8; Murray had saved a match point.

On Murray’s serve Federer put a fairly routine backhand slice into the net, giving Murray another set point. Federer saved it by coming into the net and forcing Murray to try a lob, which missed wide. 9–9; Federer had saved a fourth set point.

Federer earned another match point by hitting powerful forehands to set up an approach to the net, and then winning it with a phenomenal backhand drop volley. Murray missed his first serve, and Federer controlled the point with a fantastic forehand return, but then decided for a forehand dropshot instead of continuing with the power hitting; Murray got to it and managed to push his shot up the line, and Federer let it go, thinking it would be long—but it dropped in fairly comfortably. 10–10; Murray had saved a second match point.

Federer had control of the next point but put his attempt at a forehand winner into the net, giving Murray yet another set point. Federer erased it with a first serve winner. 11–11; Federer had saved a fifth match point.

Federer set up another match point with a powerful serve followed by a powerful wrongfooting forehand winner. Murray missed his first serve again, and then tried for a backhand down the line winner that went into the net. 13–11, and Federer had his fourth Australian Open title.

Women’s Final

The previous night, two all-time greats in women’s tennis battled for the title, with Serena Williams overcoming Justine Henin 6–4, 3–6, 6–2. It’s the best women’s final I’ve seen in a while, and the first in quite some time to go the distance. Henin produced some amazing streaks of play, at one stage winning five straight games and 15 straight points to win the second set, but couldn’t sustain that form, and couldn’t overcome Serena’s considerable serving advantage, over the course of the match. Once Henin’s form tapered off after that run, Serena took control and put the match away.

Henin has changed her style somewhat, and I don’t think it served her well in that match. She’s much more aggressive now, and was looking to end points early rather than to use her defense and versatility to construct winning opportunities. I think she has a fitness advantage over Serena, and that she would have been better off forcing longer points and running Serena around the court as much as possible. Her attacking game was definitely impressive, and when it was on, Serena had a lot of trouble with it.

So Henin, the losing women’s finalist, may have lost in part due to being overly aggressive, whereas the consensus is that Murray lost the men’s final in part due to not being aggressive enough. Their opponents, both incredibly formidable players, clearly had a lot to do with it also, but the losers’ tactical approaches definitely mattered. One difference is that Henin is quite comfortable being aggressive—she didn’t hesitate, and it looked rather natural for her. Murray, on the other hand, definitely doesn’t have the same ease with it, and while he had some success with being aggressive against Federer, he also lost a number of points with it, particularly when he seemed to hesitate, briefly. Federer, on the other hand, is completely at ease attacking, and does it without hesitation, even after bad misses.

Mental Strength

I thought that both Federer and Murray showed a lot of mental toughness in the final. It would have been easy for Murray to fade away after the display Federer put on in the second set, and it would have been easy for both of them to crack after the chances they missed in the tiebreak. Both of them made mistakes in that tiebreak, but mistakes are more or less inevitable, and both of them recovered from missed chances quite well to push the tiebreak to 24 points.

Federer looked untroubled from the outset, and didn’t go on the all-out attack as he has against Murray before. Instead, he seemed entirely content to be patient and controlled, and it definitely worked for him. His ability to calmly handle pressure is a huge asset, and I think it formed a key part of why his approach was able to work. I don’t think he would have been that stressed even by losing the tiebreak after having had match points—in fact, after he played the dropshot and let the pass go by at 10–9, you can see him ruefully smile.

Beating Federer at a Slam

Only four people have done it since 2004:

  • Marat Safin, 2005 Australian Open semifinal, 5–7, 6–4, 5–7, 7–6 (6), 9–7. Safin saved a match point with a fantastic lob off an insane get on a drop volley that Federer tried to return between his legs but dumped into the net. Then it took a sixteen-game final set to get past him.
  • Rafael Nadal:
    • 2005 French Open semifinal, 6–3, 4–6, 6–4, 6–3.
    • 2006 French Open final, 1–6, 6–1, 6–4, 7–6 (4).
    • 2007 French Open final, 6–3, 4–6, 6–3, 6–4.
    • 2008 French Open final, 6–1, 6–3, 6–0.
    • 2008 Wimbledon final, 6–4, 6–4, 6–7 (5), 6–7 (8), 9–7. Probably the greatest match of all time, and it took a frankly superhuman effort from Nadal to deny Federer his sixth straight Wimbledon title.
    • 2009 Australian Open final, 7–5, 3–6, 7–6 (3), 3–6, 6–2.
  • Novak Djokovic, 2008 Australian Open semifinal, 7–5, 6–3, 7–6 (5). Djokovic was playing the best tennis of his life, and Federer thinks he would have lost regardless, but it’s worth noting that Federer was suffering from mononucleosis at this point.
  • Juan Martin Del Potro, 2009 US Open final, 3–6, 7–6 (5), 4–6, 7–6 (4), 6–2. Another five-setter, featuring the best tennis I’ve seen Del Potro produce, and I still think that Federer let his concentration slip a little in the second set instead of closing the door, allowing Del Potro to find his way into form.

There are some commonalities here. Two of these players (Safin and Del Potro) can hit the ball incredibly hard and play aggressive power tennis; Djokovic is also an aggressive player and can hits hard, although not quite at the same level; Rafael Nadal, while not a flat power hitter in the same way, takes the game to Federer and has the spin that troubles Federer’s backhand more than anyone else can, allowing him to play very aggressively against Federer. All of them are (or were, when they played these matches) amazing defensive players with a lot of speed. (Safin and Del Potro were surprisingly quick for men their size in those matches.)

Essentially, all of them attacked Federer in one way or another, and pushed him out of his comfort zone while also forcing him to play multiple kill shots to win points. Murray could do the latter, but not the former, and that’s a key part of why he hasn’t been able to beat Federer in their Grand Slam meetings.

“Trash Talk”, the Grand Slam, and Drop Shots

Immediately after his semifinal win, Federer was asked to talk about facing Murray in the final, and said some things that many commentators interpreted as his playing mind games. He said that the first set would be more important for Murray; that Murray’s head-to-head advantage didn’t matter as much in a Grand Slam and that Murray would have to contend with the fact that Federer beat him the last time they met at a Slam; and that Murray would be facing more pressure because he hadn’t won any Slam titles whereas Federer had won fifteen, and also because of the British not having won a men’s singles Slam tite in “150,000 years”.

The ESPN commentators took this as psychological gamesmanship, trying to get into Murray’s head, but I didn’t, and don’t, see it that way at all. The notion that directly after obliterating his opponent in a Slam semifinal Federer would be thinking, “Uh-oh, I face Murray next, better come up with something that’s going to mess with his head,” is ridiculous. Federer was confident he could handle Murray and I can’t see him feeling the need to try something like that. Further, Federer seems quite straightforward, and often seems rather honest in his take on tennis matters. I think his comments after the Tsonga match were his genuine thoughts on the subject—and it’s hard to argue that he was wrong in this. He can come across as arrogant, of course, but it’s pretty hard to claim that it’s arrogance when he wins at the insane rate that he does. In addition, I thought that overall he said some very positive things about Murray, which the commentators overlooked, and that there was healthy respect there—while still remaining aware of the fact that one of them is the greatest male tennis player of all time and the other isn’t. Lastly, the “150,000” years comment was a joke at the expense of the British and the British press, and not a calculated attempt to put more weight on Murray’s shoulders.

Last year Federer was a mere two sets away from winning all four Grand Slam titles; only one set at the US Open separated him from completing a non-Calendar Slam. So the press, having written him off the last two years, are now wondering if he can do the calendar Grand Slam this year. They wondered the same about Nadal last year. Obviously, it’s pretty damn early for that. Nadal may be injured now, but I strongly suspect that his training and rehab will be quite focused on getting him into perfect form going into Roland Garros, and while I think Federer would be stronger at the French mentally now that he’s won a title, a healthy Nadal would have tremendous motivation there. I’m not sure who I’d favor if they met (and Nadal’s ranking may be such that they could meet before the final), but I don’t think I’d bet on anyone for that title right now. Wimbledon will most likely go to Federer. The US Open, however, even this far out seems much harder to predict. Del Potro might well have regained his form by then; Nadal might be healthy; Murray might be healthy and might have improved his aggressiveness; Djokovic might be healthy and ready to make a run; Davydenko might be resurgent once more. Another challenger might emerge by then. Any talk of the calendar Grand Slam is extremely premature.

I noticed a lot of dubious drop shots over the last few rounds of the Australian Open. Tsonga played something like seven against Federer and won only one of those points. It just seems like it’s a low percentage play, especially since so many of the players are just so fast now. Federer is better with the drop shot than anyone else, partly because of his touch and because he often sets it up very well, but even he played some poorly-chosen ones against Murray. I think it’s more defensible for him to play them in part because he seems to do it to wear down his opponents and to keep them confused, but nobody else seems to do it that well, and it just seems like most of the other players should eliminate the shot from their repertoire, and play it only in extreme situations.

Contrasting Excerpts/Wishful Thinking

The Guardian, in this article, had a pre-match report with a photo that had this caption:

Only Roger Federer lies between Andy Murray and a first grand slam win for a British male in 74 years.


The Telegraph reported that before the final, there was this scene:

When the on-court announcer introduced the players during the warm-up, he was listing all the years that Federer had won Wimbledon when the 15,000 spectators inside the stadium began to titter. “I haven’t finished yet,” the master of ceremonies said, and then proceeded to run through all the years that Federer had been the US Open champion.

Yes, all that stands between you and history is… the greatest player of all time. Good luck!


  • 16 Grand Slam titles (4 AO, 1 FO, 6 W, 5 US).
  • 23 straight Grand Slam semifinals or better (completely ridiculous and unparalleled!).
  • 18 of 19 Grand Slam finals; current streak of eight straight finals; previous streak of 10 straight finals. (Previous non-Federer record was seven by Jack Crawford, or four in the open era by Laver and Agassi.)
  • One or more Grand Slam wins per year for eight straight years (ties Sampras and Borg).
  • Only player to win three Grand Slams at least four times each.
  • 22 Grand Slam final appearances, an all-time record (previous best was 19 by Lendl).

Rival Performance During Semifinal Streak

To give some perspective on Federer’s Grand Slam performance over the last 23 tournaments, this is a list of how he did in each of them paired with what his rivals (I’ll look at the top five seeds or choose arbitrarily) did at those tournaments; Federer’s result is in parentheses after the tournament name. I’ve emphasized performances by rivals that don’t involve reaching at least the quarterfinals.

  • 2004 Wimbledon (W). Roddick F, Henman QF, Hewitt QF.
  • 2004 US Open (W). Roddick QF, Hewitt F, Agassi QF, Nalbandian 2R.
  • 2005 Australian Open (SF). Safin W, Hewitt F, Roddick SF, Agassi QF, Nalbandian QF.
  • 2005 French Open (SF). Nadal W, Roddick 2R, Safin 4R, Agassi 1R, Nalbandian 4R.
  • 2005 Wimbledon (W). Roddick F, Hewitt SF, Nadal 2R, Safin 3R.
  • 2005 US Open (W). Nadal 3R, Hewitt SF, Roddick 1R, Agassi F.
  • 2006 Australian Open (W). Roddick 4R, Hewitt 2R, Nalbandian SF. (Safin and Nadal didn’t play.)
  • 2006 French Open (F). Nadal W, Nalbandian SF, Roddick 1R.
  • 2006 Wimbledon (W). Nadal F, Roddick 3R, Nalbandian 3R, Hewitt QF.
  • 2006 US Open (W). Roddick F, Nadal QF, Nalbandian 1R, Hewitt QF.
  • 2007 Australian Open (W). Nadal QF, Roddick SF, Davydenko QF, Hewitt 3R.
  • 2007 French Open (F). Nadal F, Roddick 1R, Djokovic SF, Davydenko SF.
  • 2007 Wimbledon (W). Nadal F, Roddick QF, Djokovic SF, Hewitt 4R, Davydenko 4R.
  • 2007 US Open (W). Djokovic F, Nadal 4R, Davydenko SF, Roddick QF.
  • 2008 Australian Open (SF). Djokovic W, Nadal SF, Davydenko 4R, Roddick 3R.
  • 2008 French Open (F). Nadal W, Djokovic SF, Davydenko 3R.
  • 2008 Wimbledon (F). Nadal W, Djokovic 2R, Davydenko 1R, Roddick 2R.
  • 2008 US Open (W). Murray F, Nadal SF, Djokovic SF, Roddick QF, Davydenko 4R.
  • 2009 Australian Open (F). Nadal W, Djokovic QF, Roddick SF, Murray 4R.
  • 2009 French Open (W). Nadal 4R, Murray QF, Djokovic 3R, Roddick 4R, Davydenko QF, Del Potro SF.
  • 2009 Wimbledon (W). Roddick F, Murray SF, Djokovic QF, Del Potro 2R. (Nadal didn’t play.)
  • 2009 US Open (F). Del Potro W, Murray 4R, Nadal SF, Djokovic SF, Roddick 3R, Davydenko 4R.
  • 2010 Australian Open (W). Murray F, Nadal QF, Djokovic QF, Davydenko QF, Roddick QF, Del Potro 4R.

His consistency over that span is absolutely crazy. Nobody else comes anywhere close. None of them can match it with a quarterfinal streak. I’m not sure that anyone else has ever reached the second round of 23 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments, but I haven’t been able to definitively answer that. I’m pretty sure that no-one has ever reached the quarterfinals of 23 straight Slams, though. It is an ongoing astonishing achievement.

7 Responses to “Sweet Sixteen Down Under”

  1. Neal Palumbo Says:

    Hey Man,
    Great piece on Fed, the A Open, and tennis in general.
    I myself am a Fed fan, I play and just love the fact that the men’s game is so “out of this world” these days. I grew up with Connors, Mac, Borg and have enjoyed the sport for 35 years.
    Looks like you are trying?? to break into sports media, with your links.
    Hope it works out for you, I really like this piece..
    I worked on a “hyper local sports site” called yavarsity.com
    We made it (after 3 years of work) to a meeting with ESPN in NYC (3 years ago)
    they passed on the “concept” and said they wanted to go in a new direction.
    Of course 3 years later, there still have nothing out there.
    You seem to be a solid code writer, if interested in sharing ideas on “wed sports” write me sometime.

  2. Aleksandar Says:

    Great anaysis, I enjoyed reading.

  3. tedb Says:

    One correction: “23 Grand Slam semifinals or better (completely ridiculous and unparalleled!)”
    should be either “23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals or better” or “25 total Grand Slam semifinals or better.” Either correct version is even more completely ridiculous and unparalleled than what you wrote.
    Enjoyed your analysis.

  4. Tadhg Says:

    Thanks all!

    tedb: yes, I meant “23 straight Grand Slam semifinals or better”, thanks for the correction! (I think Connors holds the non-consecutive record with 31.)

  5. David V. Says:

    Regarding Williams vs. Henin… the linespeople weren’t up to snuff that day: The first three HawkEye challenges were on target, and the premature “out” call on Henin’s drop volley in the first set robbed her a service break. It’s entirely plausible that the latter changed the outcome of the match.

  6. Graham Says:

    Excellent piece, Tadhg

  7. Liz Says:

    Good piece, got your site from NYTimes article which also did play by play of the Men’s Final. I really like that kind of tennis story. I’m surprised that everyone praised Murray for being agressive against Nadal without noting that Nadal probably was, at that point, dealing with his injuries and not at top form. The option of agressive play vs. a failing Nadal is not the same as being agressive vs. a top form Fed. Fed takes that option away much of the time. Marat Safin could beat anyone when he was ON, notably Federer, but he wasn’t on most of the time. Everyone on the Men’s tour is good to great, but their consistency is a big variable. I liked your analysis of Henin’s trying to be too agressive, especially against a player who she might have worn down. I was happy Serena won, but Justine might have made better choices. Roger’s so called “trash talk” I thought alluded to the fact that he too comes from a small European country, so what’s the big deal/pressure that Murray should carry the glory back to Britain. The Empire is long gone and plenty of great players come from small countries.

Leave a Reply