While commentators often have likened Murray to the next generation’s version of Federer, we have observed few similarities in their games.  Whereas the Swiss master has honed a free-flowing brand of shotmaking that relies upon relentless aggression, the Scot’s success has hinged upon his outstanding counterpunching and resilient defense, somewhat reminiscent of grinders like Hewitt.  Therefore, their rivalry has featured an intriguing contrast of styles in addition to a mini-momentum shift.  Frustrated by Murray during their early meetings, Federer recently has wrested the psychological advantage away from the Scot.  Can the Rogers Cup’s defending champion reverse the balance of power on Sunday?  We offer three kernels of advice for each finalist to ponder.

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1)      transition from defense to offense:  During the Australian Open final, Murray recoiled from seizing command of rallies and exerting pressure upon Federer from the baseline.  Content to rely upon his superb movement and reflexes, he allowed the Swiss legend to settle into the role of aggressor throughout the match.  By stepping into midcourt balls and attempting to create offensive forays of his own, Murray can implant doubts into Federer’s mind that will complicate his game plan.  Despite the third seed’s skill in passing shots, the defending champion should confidently venture towards the forecourt when his imposing first serve elicits a diffident return.  If he can translate to the final the resolute mentality with which he attacked Nadal, Federer might be discomfited by the unexpected departure from the Scot’s cautious personality. 

2)      backhand to backhand rallies:  One of the crispest and most consistent two-handers in the game, Murray’s backhand penetrates the court far better than does Federer’s one-hander in addition to donating far fewer errors.  The Scot ably redirects the ball on this wing and disguises the direction of his shots, allowing him to keep opponents off balance.  Although Federer hit through his weaker groundstroke with confidence early in his semifinal, the shot predictably wilted when the match grew tight.  Rather than allowing the Swiss to unleash forehand after forehand, Murray must force him into his backhand corner and erode his patience, perhaps eventually luring him into an recklessly aggressive gambit.

3)      stay positive:  Whereas Federer radiates confidence even in perilous situations, Murray has proven swift to sink into negativity when momentum shifts against him.  Petulantly castigating himself or his coaches, he displays an emotional vulnerability upon which opponents as experienced as the Swiss will capitalize.  One imagines that Federer might start the final impressively, as he did in Australia; that time, the Scot vanished into a cloud of defeatism from where he didn’t emerge until the third set, before which the match virtually had been decided.  In this final, Murray must remind himself that the GOAT has grown increasingly susceptible to peaks and valleys within a match, creating unforeseen opportunities for his challengers.  But one can profit from such lapses only by remaining alert, focused, and optimistic.

Federer:

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1)      finishing points at the net:  A deft and instinctive volleyer, Federer demonstrated his forecourt talents  at pivotal junctures in his victories over Berdych and Djokovic.  Murray’s retrieving style probably will create repeated openings for the third seed to move forward, which will enable him to take time away from his fluid opponent.  Rather than engaging in a war of attrition from the baseline, Federer can prevent the defending champion from settling into a rhythm by decisively cutting points short and forcing the thoughtful Scot to rush.  In order to implement this tactic, though, he must elevate his first-serve percentage, for Murray’s outstanding return will neutralize any attempt to attack behind a second delivery.  Here, Federer might choose to prioritize placement over pace, utilizing a few more wide serves to drag the Scot off the court.

2)      attack Murray’s second serve:  Connecting with fewer than 50% of his first serves against Nadal, Murray managed to survive that low conversion rate in part because of the Spaniard’s benign returning.  Don’t expect Federer to perch cautiously behind the baseline when one of the Scot’s second balls arrives, however.  Enabling an aggressive opponent to seize the initiative immediately, this shot remains the greatest flaw in Murray’s game.  If the second serve lands well inside the service line, Federer should consider running around his backhand and crushing an inside-out or inside-in forehand return.  Beyond winning a few points outright, such a strategy would send a message to Murray and perhaps cause the pace on his first serve to diminish as the defending champion focuses upon raising his percentage. 

3)      stay focused:  Leading Djokovic 6-1, 2-0, 30-0 in the semifinal, Federer seemed headed towards an emphatic victory after an hour or so.  Serving at 5-6, 40-15 in the second set against Berdych, he seemed headed towards a tiebreak that he probably would win.  On both occasions, he injected his reeling, vastly outplayed opponent with hope by donating a slovenly service game.  While one doesn’t expect a 29-year-old father of twins to play with the relentless urgency of a hungry 24-year-old, such lapses have cost Federer severely at non-majors and even have infiltrated his game during the eight most important weeks of the calendar.  A cunning competitor when at his best, Murray feasts upon the unwary and the unfocused.  Don’t expect him to reward any charity from Federer with mercy of his own.

Shot-by-shot breakdown:  who has the edge?

Serve:  Federer

Return:  Murray

Forehand:  Federer

Backhand:  Murray

Volleys:  Federer

Movement:  Murray

Mental:  Federer

***

In Cincinnati, meanwhile, Sharapova finds herself in a highly similar situation to two weeks ago in Stanford, when she battled through a three-set semifinal on Saturday night before finding herself “out of gas” (her expression) in Sunday afternoon’s final.   While Maria will welcome the 3 PM first ball much more than Stanford’s noon start, she will be playing for a sixth consecutive day—an extremely rare occurrence in her career.  An excellent mover, the much better rested Clijsters should be able to stay in the rallies until fatigue forces the weary Russian to purposelessly spray groundstrokes, a product of striking her high-risk missiles late and out of position.  We suspect that this final may be a “one-set match,” during which Sharapova attempts to keep pace with her fellow US Open champion in the first set while ascertaining the amount of effort that the match will require from her.  If Clijsters establishes the lead with a reasonably sturdy set, Maria probably will concede the second set as she did in Palo Alto.  But if she can muster the energy to swipe the first set from an uninspired Belgian, all bets are off. 

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One can’t imagine how the Cincinnati stadium could have experienced a power outage when the Siberian’s percussive groundstrokes thundered through the court.

We return shortly to preview the ATP Cincinnati and WTA Montreal draws in the same quarter-by-quarter format that we used for this week’s tournaments!

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