Alix Ramsay: Ace Murray on track for slam
11 January 2009
By ALIX RAMSAY
IT WAS never like this with Tim. As the Australian Open comes into view, there is only one name on everyone's lips and it is Andy Murray. All interested parties, from the greats of the game to the bookies, are tipping the Scot to win his first grand slam title in Melbourne and the talk is not of "if" Murray can win, but "when".
For more than a decade, the patient British public sighed and tut-tutted as Timothy Henry Henman tried and failed to reach a major final. No matter – whenever Wimbledon came around the same old discussions would start again: could this be Henman's year. It was no more than the triumph of hope over experience as Henman was undone in four semi-finals in SW19 and one each at the US and French Opens. But when the same discussions begin about Murray, the answer is always the same: of course he can win and if not in Melbourne then at Wimbledon or in New York.
Murray reinforced the point yesterday by beating Andy Roddick 6-4, 6-2 to retain his Qatar ExxonMobil Open title. It was the third time in his career that he had defended a title and it was his ninth title in all and it left the Scot unbeaten so far this year. And he made it look so easy.
Throughout his week in Qatar, Murray had been troubled by a sore back, a result, he thought, of adapting to the new court surface in the Middle East. In his semi-final, he had needed treatment from the trainer and had warned before yesterday's encounter that any hint of an injury and he would withdraw. But after waking up feeling a little battered and bruised, the Scot soon shook off any stiffness and was moving and playing without a care in the world as he thrashed the hapless Roddick.
It was not as if Roddick was playing badly, either. He has just joined forces with Larry Stefanki and the new coaching arrangement has already added more variation to his game but still it was not enough. Murray took Roddick apart with his backhand; he out-served the man with the biggest serve on the circuit and he bullied and bossed him into submission over the course of 70 minutes.
Only once did Roddick manufacture a break point but by then the match was 68 minutes old and Murray was serving for the match. As the soon-to-be champion whisked the chance away with his fifth ace, Roddick stalked to the other side of the court and gritted his teeth.
"I have to congratulate Andy," Roddick said. "He totally outplayed me tonight. I also want to congratulate his team – they are about the hardest working team out there."
That comment brought the biggest smile to Murray's face. He may win the titles but his support crew do the hard work to make it all possible and he is not only grateful but enormously proud of what he and his team have achieved together. "We had a great year last year," Murray said of his gang's efforts, "and hopefully we can continue it this year." After yesterday's performance, there seems little doubt that Murray will get his wish.
Murray's form so far this year has been remarkable. He barely seems to have broken step since the end of last season and, more importantly, he is picking off all the big names before business begins in earnest in Melbourne. His fourth consecutive victory over Roger Federer on Friday left the Swiss looking perplexed and dejected. It also forced Federer to join the ranks of tipsters backing Murray for success.
"The question is whether he is going to win a grand slam," Federer mused. "Well – yes. He's got a chance."
What Federer did not mention was that if Murray is drawn to play the Swiss in the semi-finals in Australia, he will have more than a chance of winning. Federer had gone to Doha with the intention of proving that he was back to his best. Unlike last year, when he was suffering from glandular fever, he had trained long and hard over the Christmas break and he cruised through the rounds to reach his showdown with Murray. He had a lean and hungry look. Yet after taking the first set on a tie-break, Federer was flattened by Murray and could win only four more games.
Since he beat the Scot in the US Open final, Federer has lost to him three times on the main tour and once in an exhibition match. Now when they meet, the mighty Federer is the underdog and the expectation is that Murray will win. Friday's trouncing installed Murray as the bookies' favourite for the Australian Open title, with Ladbrokes quoting him at 5/2. Even the Australian betting gurus have Murray as the second favourite behind Federer – and they are not known for backing the Poms to win anything.
John Newcombe knows a thing or two about grand slam champions, having won seven of the major titles himself and as he eyes up the talent making its way to Australia, he believes that Murray is the man to beat.
"He got to No.4 in the world, but the way he was playing at the end of the year, you think in 12 months' time he'll be close to No.1," Newcombe said. "How will Nadal's injuries go with his knees? And Djokovic, let's see how he handles the nerves when he's defending his grand slam title.
"And with Roger, I'm sure he's been doing some very serious training and realising he has to come up with something a bit extra, which sounds strange, but he needs to vary his game and come to the net a bit more.
"The way they finished last year, I wouldn't be surprised to see Andy Murray. In my mind, he could be the guy that will step up and win."
The momentum, then, is building for Murray. What truly sets the Scot apart is that with every passing week he looks more comfortable with his role as the man of the moment.
The hype does not appear to affect him at all because he, like the pundits, knows that a grand slam title is well within his capabilities. If it does not happen in Melbourne then it will happen a little further down the road – it is only a matter of time. It was certainly never like this with Tim.
Why Murray is favourite for Aussie Open
ANDY Murray is favourite to win a Grand Slam event for the first time in his career.
William Hill have the Scot at 2/1 to win the Australian Open, while Ladbrokes make him 5/2 while Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are 11/4 and 3/1 respectively with defending champion Novak Djokovic 6/1.
Here's how Murray's stock has risen so dramatically:
Last year, Murray's ground strokes rivalled Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, but his serve was inconsistent and flaky. This year, however, Murray has put more speed, depth and power on his first serve, creating more unreturnables. Murray won 86% of first serve points against Federer on Friday while in yesterday's final, Andy Roddick only got a sight of a break in the last game of the match. Murray's second serve has also improved. In last year's defeat to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Australian Open, Murray won only 47% of second serve points. Against Roddick, he won 60%.
Murray's steeliness and will to win has always been apparent. Yet his ability to return a big serve and then sculpt a winning point was one of his failures last year. Now, he can read and break services from Roddick, one of the fastest, Federer, one of the most precise, and Nadal, whose serve contains vast amounts of spin. Roddick only mustered three aces yesterday – he almost always hits double figures.
With the help of his coaching team, the Scot has gained more upper-body strength, while also increasing the power in his legs. He now has the stamina to come back from a set down and is able to hound balls, even in a deciding set – something that will be crucial against the likes of Nadal.
Roger Federer's backhand, in particular, has broken down, while his unbeatable aura has disappeared. Nadal's game does not perform best on a hard court and there are fitness doubts, while Djokovic is short of form and confidence after his early round defeat in Brisbane. Others, such as Roddick, Gilles Simon, Tsonga and Juan Martin Del Potro lack the consistency, experience and mettle to win a Slam.