Murray eclipsed in Nadal epic but shines as game's new star
Tuesday 23 January 2007
The record books will say that Andy Murray went out in the fourth round of his third Grand Slam tournament in succession here last night. The reality, however, is that the 19-year-old Scot's performance in taking Rafael Nadal to five thrilling sets in the Australian Open confirmed his arrival as one of the game's major players.
While there were victories last year that were significant in Murray's climb up the world rankings - over Lleyton Hewitt to win his first title in San Jose, over Andy Roddick, the No 3 seed, at Wimbledon and over Roger Federer, the world No 1, at Cincinnati - this display, given the stage and the opponent, was among the best of his career.
It was the match of the tournament so far and warmed the thousands who stayed in an increasingly chilly Rod Laver Arena to see Nadal secure victory with a backhand winner down the line just before two o'clock in the morning. The Spaniard, who now plays Fernando Gonzalez in his first Melbourne quarter-final, won 6-7, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 after three hours and 51 minutes.
Murray, however, will take huge encouragement from his performance. He executed his game plan brilliantly against the world No 2 and the result could have been very different if he had taken one of five points to make the first break in the fourth set and two more to break in the first game of the fifth.
Indeed, television pictures indicated that he would have been successful if he had challenged an "out" call on a cross-court backhand at 1-2 and 15-40 on Nadal's serve in the fourth set.
During his rise to No 16 in the world rankings, which has featured victories over five of the current top 10 players, we have become accustomed to Murray's counter-attacking prowess, subtle variations of pace, clever drop shots, telling returns of serve and speed around the court.
All those qualities were evident here, but other skills were also on show as the British No 1 executed a bold strategy devised in conjunction with his coach, Brad Gilbert. With Nadal taking up his customary position behind the baseline, Murray regularly played serve-and-volley and attacked the net behind skidding sliced approach shots to Nadal's backhand.
The tactics brought a regular dividend as Murray played a succession of exquisite stop volleys. Even when Nadal managed to chase them down, Murray often responded with finely judged lob volleys.
Determined to deny Nadal a flow of half-court balls to his forehand, Murray switched between the drop shot and peppering the baseline. From the start he was the one who went on the attack, hitting shots with awesome power from either flank. His cross-court backhand, in particular, brought a succession of winners.
"I learnt I could consistently hit the ball much harder than I thought," Murray said. "I hit some huge shots tonight. I did miss a few that I wouldn't normally, but I was trying to play more aggressively. I feel I showed I'm not just a counter-puncher. I was being the aggressor for a lot of the match, hitting a lot of winners."
Nevertheless, Nadal is the most resilient of players and in the last two sets he played the key points with all the conviction that has made him the second best player on the planet behind Roger Federer. In the final set, in particular, the 20-year-old Spaniard increasingly dictated the play, forcing Murray back to the baseline and pounding him with heavy forehands.
Nadal had made the better start, conceding only two points in his first four service games, but Murray played a brilliant tie-break, including two aces, a wonderful lob volley to create set point and two successful Hawk-Eye challenges. The Scot led 4-1 in the second set but lost five games in a row after suffering an injury to his side, although he insisted afterwards that it had not affected his performance.
Murray's response was excellent. It was just after midnight and the temperature was dropping fast - Tim Phillips, the Wimbledon chairman, was among those wrapped up in blankets in the President's Box - when he broke in the sixth game of the third set. More supremely bold play saw him break again to take a two-sets-to-one lead.
The fourth set was desperately tight, but Nadal made the only break at 3-3. He then clung on in the first game of the final set before breaking Murray with two pounding forehands to lead 2-0. The Spaniard saved three more break points in the next game and when he fell to the court after converting his second match point it seemed to be in relief as much as celebration.
Nadal thought his extra experience had been a key factor but paid tribute to Murray, who should climb at least two places in the world rankings. "Andy played at an unbelievable level," he said. "He's very smart on the court, changing his game all the time and making it very difficult for everyone. He served well on the important points and the way he returned my second serve was unbelievable."
Asked how good he thought Murray could become, Nadal replied: "He's one of the top players in the world. He's going to have chances to win Wimbledon, Australia, Roland Garros and the US Open because he plays well on all surfaces."
Murray, who said he would take a short break to give a blister on his foot time to heal, said he would learn much from the experience. "I felt like I played a really good match," he said. "The standard of tennis was excellent. He came out with some great shots when he needed them."
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