Federer serves at 0-0, first set. It is a Monday afternoon in New York, September 2008. His quest for a fifth consecutive U.S. Open title has been a little bumpy, but so has his 2008. After winning three of four slams in both 2006 and 2007 (ceding the French Open to young Rafael Nadal both years), Federer is still searching for his first of the year. He fell to young Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the Australian Open, he got smoked by Nadal in the French Open finals (game score: Nadal 18, Federer 4), and worst of all, his streak of five straight Wimbledon titles was ended by Nadal in one of tennis' best ever matches.
Still great, still Federer, the man who will eventually set the record for most slam titles has dealt with an existential crisis watching the tennis world catch up to him a bit. But he has been done a favor by a young Scotsman. Twenty-one year old Andy Murray took out Nadal in four grueling sets of the U.S. Open semifinals while Federer knocked off Djokovic in four on the other side of the bracket. Federer may wear the red of a bull-fighter's cape, but he has been the bull to Nadal's fighter of late; granted, he hasn't had much success against young Murray just yet, but there is no question facing Murray is the lesser of two evils at the moment.
The match begins with Dick Enberg in the booth and Murray lined up so far behind the baseline that you can barely see him in front of the massive Louis Armstrong Stadium walls surrounding the court. He is nondescript in gray and white, his unruly, unfortunate hair reined in by a cap. That's disappointing, really. Murray without a hat looks like your high school son who woke up five minutes before you drove him to tennis practice. He carries himself as such, as well. Federer has mystique, Nadal has pouty intensity, and Djokovic is still getting mileage out of the "cocky class clown crossed with Die Hard villain" thing. But Murray walks in with his slumped shoulders and beats you mostly with defense and lovely mechanics.
At once, you see Murray's potential and limitations. He quickly ascended at 19, moving from the mid-60s of the ATP rankings in January 2006 to the mid-teens by year-end. Fourth-round appearances at Wimbledon (straight-set loss to Marcos Baghdatis after an upset of Wimbledon heavyweight Andy Roddick) and the U.S. Open (four-set loss to Nikolay Davydenko) will do that for you. But his progress has been in fits and starts since then. He cycled through a couple of coaches, injured his wrist in 2007, and briefly sank back into the high 20s in April 2008 before a quick, permanent leap into the Top 6. When the rankings come out after this tournament, he will be in the Top 4 for the first time. Four and a half years later, he will still be there.
Despite Murray's depth, Federer will blow 125-mph serves by him down the T. At 40-0, Murray finally gets a serve back, but two shots later Federer laces a crosscourt backhand winner to hold at love.
Federer serves at 1-1, first set. Deuce. It is a Friday evening, I think, in Melbourne, January 2013. It is the middle of the night in the States. Federer is attempting to reach his first Aussie Open final since 2010, when he took out Murray and hoisted the trophy for the fourth time. This is Djokovic Territory now. The world No. 1 has not lost in Melbourne since the 2010 quarterfinals; he smoked Federer and Murray to win the title in 2011 (setting in motion one of the greatest individual years of tennis in the sport's history), took out Murray and Nadal in five sets each in 2012, and rudely emasculated David Ferrer in the semifinals in 2013. But Federer did win two of three matches versus Djokovic in the latter half of 2012, and Murray outdueled him in the U.S. Open finals in September. Djokovic will be the favorite versus either one of these men, but let's not pretend the distance between these three is any larger than it is.
When Federer strikes his first serve, Murray is standing about a step beyond the baseline. He handles the serve with ease and, after a short rally, forces a Federer error and creates what is already his fifth break point of the match. He won't need a sixth. In the middle of a rather mundane rally, Murray rips a vicious crosscourt forehand off of his back leg, and a surprised Federer can't catch up to it. Murray has the break, and after surviving a break point in the next game (the only one Federer will force in the first three sets), he will serve out a 6-4 first-set win. On set point, he mauls a first serve to Federer's backhand, one the 17-time slam champion cannot poke back inbounds.
Murray bounces the ball three times and gets on his way. He is down 2-6, 5-6, love-30 in his first slam final, facing off against tennis royalty, but after he was overwhelmed early on, he has held his own in the second set. He has missed his first serve, but there is little pause before the second. He is no Novak Djokovic, who has gotten in trouble (with fans more than umpires) for his long dribble breaks before important serves. There is almost a defeatist quality to it. "Let's get on with this, yeah?"
Murray spins in a second serve that is not incredibly weak but is not nearly strong enough. Federer chips with the backhand and charges to the net. Murray, already about 100 feet behind the baseline (okay, 10-15) attempts a lob, but it doesn't have nearly enough on it, and Federer slams it down the center of the court. It happens to be where Murray is standing, however, and Murray gets a swipe at it. The half-lob is spinning away from Federer. No matter. Federer spikes it home at an awkward angle and has three set points.
He needs just one. Murray plays a very good point, but Federer plays a great one, eventually blowing an incredibly difficult "running toward the net and flipping a forehand down the line" passing shot past the Scot. Federer is up, two sets to none.
Federer's bag of tricks is far from empty. Despite struggling to make any noise against Murray's serve (Murray wins 27 of 36 service points in the second set, seven via ace), and despite Murray's ridiculously high level of play (17 winners to nine errors in the second set), Federer evens the match at a set apiece. At 5-5 in the second-set tie-breaker, Murray hits a second serve to Federer's backhand. Federer chips at it but doesn't get much depth and, after a single step forward, he retreats as Murray advances toward the net. Murray hits a picture-perfect forehand, and Federer has to stretch to get a backhand to it. Murray doesn't get great force on the ensuing overhead (one that may have been unnecessary, as Federer's lob appeared to be going long), however, and Federer lines up a gorgeous cross-court backhand winner to craft a set point out of thin air. Federer lands his first serve in, forces Murray to his right, and a Murray forehand goes long. Set: Federer.
Still, Murray controls the action. In the third set, he not only wins a sturdy 76 percent of his first-serve points, but he wins 88 percent of his second-serve points. Federer still cannot generate even a single break point, Murray converts one of three, and the Scot takes the third set, 6-3, in just 36 minutes. Murray almost sneers between points now. The hanging head, the slumped shoulders, the beaten posture … all of the things that characterized the Old Murray, even when he was winning, are just about gone. Sure, he has let his hair grow back out a bit after sheering it clean for a while, but after a year with Ivan Lendl as his coach, he has begun to morph into Lendl, the cold, calculating, seemingly emotionless villain of 1980s tennis who won eight slams, including five in a dominant three-year period (1985-87).
Still, like Murray, Lendl was not immune to letting players off the hook Down Under. Like Murray, Lendl was outplayed dramatically in his first Aussie final (a straight-set loss to Mats Wilander in 1983). Like Murray in 2012, he fell in a ridiculous, grueling five-set semifinal to the eventual champion (Stefan Edberg) in 1985. Lendl also let a lower-seeded Pat Cash knock him off in both the 1987 (in four sets) and 1988 (in five) Aussie semis. And while Murray dictates a wide majority of this match with Federer, cracks begin to show at precisely the wrong time.
Federer had finally broken Murray early in the fourth set, and with the way the two had served for most of the middle sets, that looked like all it would take to force this match to a fifth. But down 4-1, Murray battles back, evens the match at 5-5, and breaks Federer at love to go up 6-5 and serve for the match. But after the first point, Federer yells something angrily at Murray (the first word appears to start with an "F", but that's really all we know). Murray smirks in return, but around this time, his second serve gets more shallow, and Federer's shot-making finds fifth gear. At 30-30, Federer unleashes the perfect backhand winner, again crafted seemingly out of thin air; and on his first break point, he stabs at a tough first serve, knocks the return at Murray's feet, and Murray's response sails wide. Federer wins the tie-breaker with ease. It's time for a fifth set, and Federer has all of the momentum.
Murray, however, immediately finds his service depth again. He breaks Federer's serve and goes up 3-0. Before we have even settled in for fifth-set dramatics, Murray, the new Murray, has taken complete control. He went from beaten to breaking in the blink of an eye.
When a young player breaks down, it happens in one of two ways. Either he unleashes a barrage of errors and, occasionally, expletives, and the end comes very, very quickly; or he simply clams up a bit, stops going for winners and allows himself to be beaten. Technically the latter is the way to go -- it forces your opponent to finish you off instead of doing it for him/her. When your defense and speed are as good as Murray's, you can actually survive some lulls by simply getting the ball back and forcing your opponent to hit another few shots. That doesn't work against Roger Federer, of course. His ability to avoid lulls himself, and to hit that damned inside-out forehand with impossible speed at an impossible angle, will take you down sooner than later.
It is quickly 5-2 in the third set. Federer has hit 35 winners to Murray's paltry 15. Murray double-faulted to set up a championship point, but he saved it with a big serve and a brilliant pair of backhand volleys. That he had to hit a second one at all tells you about Federer's level of play. Fed not only retrieved a tough volley trailing away from him, but he shot a BB down the line, one that Murray deftly handled. Federer quickly sets up a second match point, however -- a pair of crushing shots to Murray's backhand is too much, and Murray crawls inside his shirt and yells at himself afterward -- and two of those damned forehands, part topspin, part slapshot, sets up a series of slams and lobs. On the third exchange, Murray's return finds the net, and as always, Federer collapses to the ground.
This one took him a year, but he has secured his 13th slam title. Murray staggers to the net, shakes Federer's hand, and keeps talking to Federer longer than the champion thought he would. Though a Top 4 mainstay, it will take Murray five slams to reach another final, the 2010 Australian Open, where he is wiped out by Federer once again. A year later, in the 2011 Aussie final, he will be dominated by Djokovic in straight sets.
Four hours after the match began, Andy Murray looks like he just slaughtered a lamb. Federer's final forehand goes long, wrapping up a jarringly fast, one-sided fifth set, and Murray walks to the net slowly, filled with both satisfaction and a grim, "It had to be done, but I didn't enjoy it" expression. After a rather bitter match, replete with some F-bombs and a brief bout of smack talk, Federer meets Murray at the net, smiles, congratulates him and pats him on the chest. Murray nods gratefully but says barely a word. He shakes the umpire's hand, throws his wrist bands into the stands via formality, then heads over to talk to Jim Courier for his post-match interview.
Murray: "I didn't see much of [Djokovic's semifinal massacre of David Ferrer]. I heard about it, and I have to play extremely well."
Courier: "Take my word for it. It might be better that you didn't see it."
Something tells me Murray isn't too intimidated.
Talib Kweli wasting not a single word in describing, almost with optimism, a fictional tragedy in the final verse of "Broken Glass." James Baldwin thinking boldly and clearly in the middle of an emotional breakdown in The Fire Next Time. Alabama's defense getting knocked backwards, rocking on its heels and still making the play it needed to make (with some luck) in the final seconds of the 2012 SEC Championship game. Perfection is boring. Heaping spoonfuls of vulnerability stirred into perfection, however, make me want to hug myself and everyone around me.
In this way, tennis has always been a sport that clicked with me. There is an innate vulnerability that penetrates every singles match, and individual rivalries are allowed to go to intense levels when only a net separates two competitors for hours upon hours. But the last few years, the sport has found a new, higher place. In every slam -- Every. Slam. -- you are guaranteed at least one classic semifinal full of plot twists, breakdowns, comebacks and personal drama, and you are guaranteed a classic title fight, a Frazier-Ali heavyweight battle, in the finals.
Andy Murray has caught up, but we already knew that. We knew it when he was blowing Roger Federer off the court in the Olympic gold medal match last summer, not one month after Federer had disposed of him in four sets in the Wimbledon final. We knew it when he became the first person in at least two years to physically outlast Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open finals, somehow surviving a 7-6, 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2 battle that took four hours and 54 minutes (the same length as Ivan Lendl's loss to Mats Wilander in the 1988 finals) and was almost too much to take as a viewing experience. We even knew it when, in their first meeting after the U.S. Open finals, Djokovic had to outlast Murray, surviving five match points before winning in three full sets. Tennis' Big 3 of Djokovic-Federer-Nadal became a Big 4 a while back.
Still, Murray's five-set win over Federer, his first over the Swiss legend in a slam, on Day 12 of the 2013 Australian Open proved, or reaffirmed, a couple of key points. First of all, Murray has the attitude, the mentality, and the body language of a champion. His breakthrough was not an accident, and Ivan Lendl's impact on him (along with continued maturity) is palpable and obvious. Second, Roger Federer really hasn't slipped.
Go back and watch the 2008 U.S. Open final. The Federer you see there is remarkably similar to the one we see today. Perhaps the stamina is not quite where it was, from a natural "31 years old is older than 27" perspective. Perhaps his service return betrays him more often now. But the differences are minimal. What is preventing Federer from winning three slams per year right now, especially in Nadal's absence, is not that his game has regressed, but that the games of Djokovic and Murray have caught and, at times, surpassed his. Federer still does not lose to mortals. He has been invulnerable to upsets -- the last time he lost before the quarterfinals of a slam was at the 2004 French Open. That was more than one full year before Murray played in his first slam. He occasionally drops a big match to Tomas Berdych (No. 6 in the world), Juan Martin Del Potro (No. 7) or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (No. 8), but his record versus that trio is still 12-4 in slams. Most of the time, when Federer loses, it is to a Djokovic, Nadal or Murray playing ridiculously well. And they have to play ridiculously well to take him down.
Men's tennis is just so damn good right now. Djokovic is just about as good as he was in 2011, but he hasn't even won a slam since last year's Aussie. Murray is peaking. Federer is still 95 percent Federer. Four different men have won the last four slams, and while Murray has a chance to (perhaps briefly) seize control of the men's game with a win over Djokovic in the finals, what we are seeing is randomness as much as anything. Get these guys to the semis or finals, then roll the dice and see what happens. If Nadal can return to full strength following the knee injury that cost him the last few months of 2012, well, things get even better, don't they?
And for the second straight year, the Australian Open has brought out the best in the men's game. Murray and Djokovic are poised to replicate last year's absurdly great semifinal between the two (Djokovic won, 7-5 in the fifth, before beating Nadal, 7-5 in the fifth). Federer looked great but was still forced to play back-to-back five-setters for the first time and withered however slightly. Djokovic barely even survived Stanislas Wawrinka in the fourth round. It has been a hell of a fortnight in Melbourne, and now we get to see the finale the tournament deserves. Don't ask me who will win. Just watch.