Andy Murray beat Roger Federer in a best-of-five-sets match for the first time today, comprehensively defeating him 6–2, 6–1, 6–4. That is Britain’s first men’s singles tennis gold medal in over a century, although that gap is less meaningful given that tennis was absent from the Olympics for an extended period. It was certainly an impressive feat for Murray, who went through both of the top two players in the world in order to win.
The first game of the match was remarkably misleading. Federer came out looking smooth and relaxed, with a predatory fluidity that seemed to bode ill for Murray. With strong offensive tennis he created two break points at 15–40, and in the first one seemed to have a great chance at securing it, with a look at a backhand pass—which he sent into the tape. He also hit the tape on the next break point, and that opportunity was gone.
It seemed as if Federer was going to be the one applying the pressure, and when Federer held his opening service game easily, I thought that Murray would be in trouble at 1–1. Instead, saving those break points in the first game seemed to have let him settle in, and he started bossing Federer around from the baseline.
In the early stages of the first set, it seemed that Murray’s baseline play might not be enough to overcome his poor serving. Federer, however, was making errors at critical times, particularly off his backhand, and backhand errors let Murray escape pressure at 2–2.
More errors, and improving play from Murray, made Federer’s service game at 2–3 into a turning point for the set. Federer opened with a bad forehand miss, then Murray played a great running down-the-line forehand to give him 0–30. Federer brought it to deuce, then had the advantage, then consecutive backhand errors gave Murray a break point he couldn’t take, and Federer had another shot to get out of the game that he couldn’t take with a forehand down the line that barely missed. Federer had another backhand error to give Murray another break, and then Murray won the point with a series of powerful backhands.
Remarkably, Murray would go on to win the next eight games. Federer just couldn’t get any traction. Murray was outplaying him from the baseline, and was also extraordinarily determined to hunt down everything, several times winning rallies where he seemed completely out of the point. Federer compounded this by missing some easy sitters, including overheads—normally a very solid part of his game.
The next critical point came on Federer’s first service game of the second set. Serving at 0–15, he missed a very easy overhead for 0–15, then made a backhand error for 0–30 (although Murray’s play during that rally was excellent), and from there Murray hit a shot that went dead off the net for 0–40 and followed that up with a passing shot that hit the net to give Federer no chance but still landed in.
Everything was, indeed, going Murray’s way.
With Murray serving at 2–0, Federer made a real effort to get back into the match, and he had six break points—none of which he was able to convert. He had his chances, the best at 30–40 when he didn’t do enough with Murray at the net and Murray came up with an amazing stab volley to reach deuce. Federer wasn’t able to convert any of the break points after that, and Murray’s grip on the match strengthened.
Murray was combining phenomenal defense with stronger hitting off both sides to pressure Federer, wasn’t going for too much most of the time, but also came up with some ridiculously good shots when he needed them. Federer, by contrast, could not get the really good shots when he needed them, and while he did play the occasional point that made him look like Roger Federer, he didn’t seem sharp most of the time.
He managed a solitary game in the second set, and in the third, gave up the break at 2–2. That game might have been most representative of the match:
- Federer forehand error for 0–15.
- Federer ace for 15–15.
- Amazing Murray forehand from way behind the baseline forces an error from Federer for 15–30.
- Bad Federer half-volley makes it 15–40.
- Murray hits a strong backhand to Federer’s backhand to draw a slice error for the game.
That effectively sealed the set. Federer never threatened Murray’s serve in the third set. He never seemed able to really get his teeth into the contest, while Murray was determined and confident throughout.
This is certainly a meaningful result for Murray, but whether or not it’s the breakthrough the leads to his winning a Slam title remains to be seen. It was certainly a remarkable turnaround from the Wimbledon final one month before, but such turnarounds can of course go in different directions. The US Open should be interesting indeed—Murray has called it his favorite major, and quite a few commentators think it’s the most likely Slam for him to win. If he were to win it, there would be four different men’s Slam champions for the first time since 2003.
The Slams are of course quite different beasts from the Olympics, and Federer and Djokovic will certainly be eager to add to their hardware—as will Nadal, assuming that he recovers in time to play. The hardcourt run-up to the US Open will be slightly truncated this year, as the presence of the Olympics in the calendar mean that a lot of players are taking time off after it. This may make the US Open less predictable, but, assuming Nadal is healthy, I would still consider the top three favorites to retain their lock on Slams, with the most likely players to break that stranglehold being, in order, Murray, Del Potro, and Tsonga.