Rafael Nadal is no longer the only hobgoblin in Roger Federer’s closet. Andy Murray has taken up residence after he extended his winning streak over Federer to four consecutive matches.
Murray, the laconic young Scot, defeated Federer 6-3, 4-6, 6-1 in the semi-finals of the BNP Paribas Open on Saturday to advance to the title match yesterday against Nadal, a 6-4, 7-6 (4) winner over Andy Roddick in the other semi-final.
Federer sat atop the world rankings for a record 237 consecutive weeks until his inability to beat Nadal bumped him to No. 2 in August. Nadal is 13-6 against Federer, but Murray is now 6-2, including those four consecutive victories since October.
The assumption that Nadal and Federer will play for the championship of any important tournament no longer is valid.
“He’s a great counterpuncher and reads the game really well,” Federer said of Murray. “He has great feel. So he’s very confident at the moment. You can tell, the way he plays. He knows he doesn’t have to play close to the lines because he can cover the court really well. I think that calms him down mentally. I think that is why he’s playing so well.”
Murray, 21 and ranked No. 4 in the world, has been difficult on everyone this year. His record is 20-1 and the one defeat came when he withdrew before a match with Richard Gasquet last month in Dubai because of illness.
Murray is perhaps the least dynamic player among the world’s elite, but he ranks among the most cunning.
He recalls being told earlier in his career: “You play very defensively, you don’t hit the ball particularly hard all the time, and what not, and you lose matches by letting people win points.”
“I try to explain that there’s more than one way to win points, more than going for big booming serves and big forehands,” he said. “If you change the pace and mix it up, I’m playing the match the way I want. If I started trading ground strokes against Federer, that’s what he would want.”
“Very rarely do I lose matches letting the other guy play his natural game,” he said.
That seemed borne out in Saturday’s match. Federer attempted to hit winners; Murray seemed content to keep the ball in play with metronomic efficiency. Murray, 5cm taller and six years younger than Federer, seemed to generate more pace with his effortless swing.
“I’m old, he’s young; makes a huge difference,” Federer said. “No, I mean, those are best-of-three-set matches. I think in the last few matches I always felt Andy came on strong as the match went on. This time was different. I think I played well in the second, forced the issue a bit more and then I played a shocking third set.”
Murray broke Federer twice in the first set, which was littered by 14 unforced errors by Federer. The Swiss rallied in the second set, dominating events with shot-making reminiscent of his long run at the top.
The turning point came in the fourth game of the final set on Federer’s serve. He appeared to have won the first point with an overhead smash at Murray’s feet, but the surprisingly lithe Murray got a racket on the ball, near his ankles, and popped up a lob that landed 30cm inside the back line.
On the next point, Murray skidded while in futile chase of a shot and shouted “Ow!” as he fell to the hardcourt surface, fearing a recurrence of an old injury to his groin. But he bounced up and benefited from three consecutive errors by Federer for a key break. Federer seemed to sense doom in an almost half-hearted fifth game, his shoulders drooping as a game-ending backhand sailed long. On the fourth match point in the seventh, Federer was unable to return Murray’s serve, and Murray landed in the final here in the Southern California desert.