When Brit Andy Murray handed world No. 1 Roger Federer his first opening-round loss in a tournament in almost four years on Monday in Dubai, it illustrated why 2008 will likely be the Swiss’ most difficult year.
Murray downed Federer 6-7(6), 6-3, 6-4, his second win in a row over the Swiss following the Masters Series-Cincinnati in 2006, a match some accused Federer of subtly “tanking” since he was just coming off a draining victory at the Masters Series-Canada. Federer wasn’t on his game Monday, but was giving his all after a disappointing loss to Novak Djokovic in his last event, the Australian Open.
Federer has never been a Murray fan. After the loss, Federer said Murray has made little progress since last defeating him in Cincinnati 1-1/2 years ago.
“I don’t think he has changed his game a whole lot since the first time I played him and I really thought he would have done,” Federer said of Murray. “He is going to have to grind it very hard in the next few years if he is going to play this way.”
Murray played a patient, counter-attacking game, pressing the frustrated Swiss to make the first move on many occasions, then picking the opportune time for aggression.
“He stands way behind the court,” Federer told reporters. “You have to do a lot of running and he tends to wait for the mistakes of his opponent. I gave him the mistakes today but overall in a 15-year career you want to look to win a point more often rather than wait for the other guy to miss. Who knows, he might surprise us all.”
Federer has a great deal of respect for Rafael Nadal, who plays a similar style, but has not come so pointedly under the Swiss’ wrath.
Federer elaborated on the Monday match, saying the loss had little to do with Murray.
“It was nothing to do with his game,” Federer said. “I thought I was missing forehands by two or three meters. That’s awful. You have it lined up and suddenly it’s out which comes as a shock.”
This is the first year since 1999, when he was playing Challenger events, that Federer hasn’t won a tour title in January-February. For years it was only Nadal on the Swiss’ level. Now the youngsters Djokovic and Murray have shown that they expect to beat Federer when they take the same court, not to mention players such as Guillermo Canas and David Nalbandian who both beat Federer twice last year.
If I were Pete Sampras, Federer’s next opponent on March 10 at Madison Square Garden and a winner in their last exhibition meeting, I’d be licking my chops. Federer’s artistry is brilliant to behold, but in sports, everyone likes to pile on a loser, and tennis will now receive an injection of media coverage. Confidence is king in tennis, and Federer will need to build upon his in March at the big events in Indian Wells and Miami. Whereas most players look at their year in terms of win-loss records, Federer’s has always been measured in win-the tournament or lose-the-tournament. Federer has over the past few years set a gold standard that is almost impossible to uphold.
The Swiss will likely go down in history as the greatest player ever, but early 2008 has given him a lot to think about. Is it time to hire another coach, bring in some outside assistance? For the first time in a long while he may have to take the Federer Express off cruise control.
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