Beneath the affable and impeccably polite exterior, Roger Federer is not averse to the odd spot of psychological warfare. Before meeting Andy Murray in the Australian Open final two years ago, the Swiss did not waste the opportunity, in an on-court interview following his semi-final victory, to add to the pressures on the man who would be trying two days later to deny him the title.
Asked about the challenge Murray would pose, Federer said, to the amusement of the Melbourne crowd: "I know he'd like to win the first [Grand Slam title] for British tennis in, what is it, 150,000 years. The poor guy has to go through those moments over and over again."
Perhaps more than any other player of recent times, Murray has regularly got under Federer's skin. The 16-times Grand Slam champion may have beaten the Scot in all six of their finals, but overall Murray has the edge, having won eight of their 15 encounters.
One of the game's great athletes, Murray is a natural counter-puncher who loves nothing better than to take everything his opponents can throw at him before responding with his own knockout blows. The strategy has worked particularly well against Federer, to the former world No 1's apparent irritation. After Murray beat him in Dubai four years ago, Federer launched into a remarkably blunt critique of the Scot.
"I don't think his game has changed a whole lot since I played him in the Bangkok final [in 2005]," Federer said. "It works for him, but he's going to have to grind very hard for the next few years if he's going to keep playing this way.
"I know that he beat me, but he stands way back in the court. You have to do a lot of running and he tends to wait a lot for his opponent to make a mistake. I gave him the mistakes today, but I think that overall, over a 15-year career, you want to look to win a point more often than wait for the other guy to miss."
Given the ages of the Fab Four who have dominated men's tennis in recent years, it is no surprise that 25-year-old Murray is much closer to Novak Djokovic, who is a week younger than him, and to Rafael Nadal, who is a year older. The three men have known each other since their junior days. They have long-term girlfriends, while 30-year-old Federer has been married for three years and has two daughters.
Nevertheless, there appears to be more than an age gap between the Swiss and the Scot. Federer has supreme self-confidence – which can come across as arrogance – whereas Murray is as down to earth as any of the game's top players. The suave Swiss is at ease in any company – it was no surprise who sat next to the Queen at lunch when she visited the All England Club two years ago – whereas Murray is naturally shy and most at ease with those closest to him.
In his public comments Murray never expresses anything other than the utmost respect for Federer, but you sense that he loves nothing more than to take the Swiss down a peg or two on the court.
Four years ago, when they met in the round-robin stage of the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai, Murray had already qualified for the semi-finals and might have been expected not to over-exert himself against Federer, who, in contrast, needed to win to progress. Murray, however, could not resist the chance to get one over the Swiss and knock him out of the tournament. The Scot gave so much to win a three-hour thriller that he was a spent force when he lost his subsequent semi-final, but the satisfaction at having put out Federer was clearly worth it.
The edge between the two men does not appear to have been dulled with the passing years. After Murray had won successive tournaments in Bangkok, Tokyo and Shanghai last autumn, Federer was quick to cast doubt on the merits of his run.
"I'm not taking anything away from Asia, but was Asia the strongest this year?" he asked. "I'm not sure. Novak wasn't there, I wasn't there – I played in the [Shanghai] final last year – and Rafa lost early. But it was a good effort by him."
A week or two later, before the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London, Murray was asked about Federer's comments.
"I always try if I can to be positive about all the other players," Murray said. "I have always said that Roger is one of the best players ever to play and I love having a chance to compete against him. I don't know all of the stuff that's been said. I try to keep away from that as much as possible. Hopefully I will get a chance to play against him this week and we can let our tennis do the talking."
However, when pressed about whether the Asian tournaments had been below-strength, Murray took the opportunity to reflect on Federer's victory in the Paris Masters the previous weekend.
"It depends how you look at it," he said. "The tournaments where everybody is there... look at Paris. Rafa wasn't there, Novak was injured and I was injured."
Winning Wimbledon is a goal in itself, no matter who is on the other side of the net. For Murray, however, there could surely be no greater triumph than to win against the greatest player of all time.Reuse content