Roger Federer and Andy Murray will meet today at the Australian Open for the first Grand Slam title of the new decade. I know there are a lot of fans who wanted to see Federer play Rafael Nadal, but I think this paring is the next best, if not the best final matchup we could have had.
Both Murray and Federer come off impressive performances in the semifinals. Murray had a slow start against Cilic before he found his gear while Federer was in complete control from the onset over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga who appeared to have forgotten that he had a semifinal that day – JW was basically a no-show!
Of the two, Murray has been the better player the last two weeks. He played awesome tennis against Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals and showed his versatility in comfortably taking down the dangerous Big John Isner.
Federer struggled with Igor Andreev in the first round then had a couple clunkers against Victor Hanescu, Albert Montanes and Lleyton Hewitt (Hewitt just announced that he had another hip surgery and will be out three months!) before that crazy match with Nikolay Davydenko.
In their ten head-to-head meetings Murray leads it 6-4. But only one meeting came at a Slam or in a best-of-five situation and Federer prevailed in straight sets at the US Open final. And Federer’s won the last two in Cincinnati and in front of his British fans November in London. Of Murray’s six wins, only one came in straight sets. He’s never beaten Federer in a final either.
What I like about this matchup is that really anything can happen in the final: Murray wins in a blowout, Federer wins in straights, Murray in five, Federer in five, etc. Just about any combination wouldn’t shock me with the exception being a Federer retirement. That I don’t see. But really, the way the two play it should be a great, compelling match.
With that, here’s my breakdown of the key strokes:
Serve – Advantage Federer
Murray brings more heat, more bang on his serve. But Federer gets the edge here with his precision, placement and above all his second serve. Both have good first serves and the match could very well come down to who is hitting and winning more on their first serve. And Murray will need to serve a high first serve mark because I think his second offering is far more attackable then Roger’s.
Forehand – Advantage Federer
Both players have terrific forehands. Murray may have more options than Roger and perhaps even more zing on his shot when he goes full force. But I’m going to go with the Federer forehand. It’s not quite what it use to be but it still remains among game’s best. I also like that he’s added the drop shot in recent years and his wide squash shot is a beauty. And unlike Murray who really doesn’t have one true go-to shot, the forehand is without question Federer’s weapon of choice.
Backhand – Advantage Murray
Federer may have slightly more variety and more options off the backhand wing, but I’m taking Murray in this one. Federer’s backhand is where most players direct their blows as it’s far more susceptible to breaking down than the forehand, and I’m sure Murray will employ a similar strategy. Murray’s backhand is a rock. He can roll it, flatten it out, slice, lob and even hit the dropshot. Plus, he can return serve much better off it than Roger. Big edge to the Scot in this department.
Return of Serve – Advantage Murray
Roger never really does much with the return of serve. We’ve seen him time and again just chip the ball back in effort to simply begin the rally. It’s not as much of an offensive shot as it could be. And I also think Roger’s a wee bit vulnerable off his backhand return. For me, Murray may not get as many balls back as Roger does against the big players, but he can do more damage with the ones he does return, especially off the backhand wing. If Roger’s missing a lot of first serve Murray could be holding up the hardware at the end of the day.
Speed and Movement – Advantage Murray
Both players are two of the fleetest around the court which allows them to play great defense as well as great offense. I’ve often said in the past that Federer is the fastest player in the game, but no more. I truly feel he’s lost a half step from a few years ago and that’s really just part of the aging process. So I’m taking Murray. He’s quick, reads and reacts well and his body size gives him an extra few inches to retrieve. He also moves well vertically – to and from the net – better than just about anyone.
Volley – Advantage Federer
Murray volleys very well, but if I had to pick Federer gets the edge but not by much. Murray has some of the best hands in the business but over time Roger’s been able to hit the volley when it counts.
X-Factor – Advantage Federer
Federer is playing in his 8th straight Grand Slam final and it’s his 18th of his last 19 Slams. Two absolutely ridiculous numbers. By contrast Murray is just in his second final having lost to Federer already in the 2008 US Open title match in straight sets. But now that Roger has his records the pressure on the Swiss isn’t quite what it was just a year ago. Meanwhile Murray has all of the expectations and the agony of Great Britain resting on his shoulders. And when you look at moments when those expectations have been at their highest – 2008 US Open final, 2009 Wimbledon semifinals, 2009 London – Murray has come up short more times than he’s come good. Federer knows how to get the job done at this stage, he may not be the better pound-for-pound player, but he gets the edge.
Key to Match
In my mind the match is on Murray’s racquet. He has so many weapons and options – sometimes too many – that when he’s playing at his best I don’t think anyone can beat him. But the problem is that all too often he goes into a defensive-passive mode which usually gets him into trouble against the better players. That said, if he can stay in an offensive mindframe and serve well for the entire match he should win. If he starts pushing the ball hoping for Federer errors – a tactic that has worked in the past – I think he’ll be in trouble.
For Federer, he has to serve well to have chance at winning this one. That means a high percentage of first serves to keep Murray on his heals. Roger also needs to tighten up the groundstokes and have a low unforced error day. If he’s making a lot of errors off the ground he’s not going to be able to get many breaks, if any, off the Murray serve. And if he can jump on Murray with an early break and take the first set, that could be it. So a quick start would do Roger a lot of good.
Federer is not the same player he was a few years ago when he was playing on another stratosphere. Nowadays he’s looking more and more vulnerable with each passing Slam. In Melbourne he was in serious trouble against Andreev and later against Davydenko. Murray is a better and more complete player than either Russian and he’s mentally much sounder. But this is the biggest match of Murray’s career, and that’s a big factor. As I said he’s had trouble in big matches before when his country in hanging on every stroke. And we saw a little crack in the mental armor of Murray in that first set against Cilic. Now the tension and pressure will be exponentially greater in the finals – and it doesn’t help that he’s had two days off because I think it only adds to the weight on Murray’s shoulders and prolongs the anxiety of playing the match, which I’ll say isn’t a good thing.
As I said before, Murray’s the better player and if this match was a final in Montreal or a best-of-five final in Shanghai or even an early round Slam match, I’d pick Murray. But this has now flat-out become the biggest match of Murray’s career and perhaps for his home country in decades. For Federer, it’s really just another Slam final. Fed’s place in tennis secure win or lose. So Murray has the pressure and from what I’ve seen I’m not completely convinced he can handle it just yet. Federer I know can. The pick is Federer in four.
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