Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Absolutely Sweet, Murray

Just another Sunday afternoon for Roger Federer. Where is it this week? Oh yes, Thailand. 31st consecutive ATP tour win, 24th straight win in an ATP tour final. In straight sets, of course. That's twenty-four crushing victories in the matches that matter, twenty-four modest, self-effacing victory speeches, twenty-four words of praise and encouragement for the hapless vanquished. Just another Sunday.

There was a small subtext to Sunday's contest, small at least in the eyes of the tennis world at large- vastly more significant in the eyes of the British tennis world- namely the progression to a first ATP tour final of 18-year-old Andrew Murray, and the highly mature and competitive performance the young Scot proceeded to give.

Now, in this part of the world, much like our ingrained ability to evaluate and discuss the merits of a nice floury spud, we have a genetic predisposition to the deflection and rubbishment of all hype and bombast which issues forth from the British media. Its a complex filter-type arrangement, located just beneath the epidermis. Really.

It explains the healthy skepticism with which we view most of the publicity we receive second hand from the cross-channel sports media, before going to consume it with as much avarice as our cousins in Albion. Nice to be sure first, you know. It could also excuse eyes being thrown to heaven in July as, following the traditional Eliminating of the Henman, the modest Hill in SW17 named in his honour was rechristened Murray Mount. Squirm.

Except, it would appear, that Andrew Murray is the real deal.

Much like with Federer, its worth looking at the numbers.

Sept 2004- wins US Open Boys' title, ranking 415
June 2005- reaches third round at Stella Artois, ranking 317
July 2005- reaches third round at Wimbledon, ranking 213
Sept 2005- reaches second round of US Open, ranking 111
Oct 2005- Runner-up in Thailand Open, ranking 75

Murray has climbed three hundred odd places in a year, and is about on the same career trajectory as Federer in terms of ranking in relation to age.

What is so startling about Murray is a phenomenon that often occurs with the young- that is, the sense of them growing before your very eyes. In Murray's case the progression in his game since most of us first became aware of him at Wimbledon is marked even to the untrained eye. While Federer won the match in straight sets, the score- 6-3, 7-5- demonstrates a little the competitiveness of the match, and a closer inspection of the statistics shows how the great Swiss was broken in the second set, and how the young Scot repeatedly brought his vaunted opponent to deuce while returning his serve. Its not too often that Federer gets a challenge like it, to be honest.

The progression in Murray, while undoubtedly in the scope and execution of his shots, is most marked in the improvements in his mental attitude. Our first impression of him at Wimbledon, reinforced at Flushing Meadows, was of a brattishness and temper which appeared to burn up vital energy in repeated bouts of self-flagellation when things went against him. The contrast with the icy calm of Federer was a salutary lesson.

But let us delve for a moment into Federer's past. While on the juniors circuit, as unlikely as it may sound, Federer was noted for a ferocious, McEnroe-esque flammability on the court. Whether through natural maturity or self-correction, Federer is now, as we know well, the epitome of mental fortitude.

Murray, it would appear from most recent viewing, has himself begun to channel that ferocious energy away from mid-game rants and towards an increasing obvious capacity to raise his game at the right moments and on the crucial points- a vital ingredient for real success in tennis.

Federer, following his receipt of yet another trophy was asked the obligatory question about his opponent. His response was standard: "Absolutely [he has a big future]. That was a very tough final today". But the highly unusual sight of the world number having broken sweat suggests that these words were a little more than the twenty-fourth consecutively delivered platitude.

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