The first set of Roger Federer’s semifinal win over Andy Murray today in London was close, the second one wasn’t. But they shared a similar plot: A lead by Murray that Federer snatched away, seemingly from out of nowhere.
Federer started slowly. In the first game, he made four unforced errors and was broken, and his forehand seemed to be drawn magnetically into the net. ESPN commentators Patrick McEnroe and Brad Gilbert believed that the unsteadiness was caused by Federer’s fearful desire to counter Murray’s new, Lendl-era aggression, but it could just as easily have been a generic slow start. Either way, Murray was more proactive than normal in the early going, and it worked for him. He stepped into his backhand and went after his forehand return. On the latter shot, though, I thought he was too aggressive, and that it cost him.
At 2-0 and 3-1 Murray had opportunities to go up a double break. In the first of those games, at deuce, he smacked a low-percentage crosscourt forehand return that landed just wide. In the second of those games, up 3-1, 15-30, with a look at a second serve, Murray went for broke again on his forehand and missed by a few inches. Both times Federer went on to hold and keep himself in the second set. Overall, Murray’s determination to attack was the right one, but that doesn’t mean you can’t also play to the situation—“being aggressive” shouldn’t mean “being aggressive with every single shot.” At that stage, Federer was still getting settled and making errors. That was probably a moment for Murray, no matter what his long-term game plan was, to make Federer play a few balls. As it was, he knocked on the door, but couldn’t blow the first set open.
If Murray wanted a lesson in how to attack situationally, how to pick his spots, he didn’t need to look far. Federer showed his mastery of that skill again today. By 3-4 in the first set, he had found his range. He had stopped the errors, neutralized the Murray attack, and punctuated a forehand winner with his first “Come on!” of the evening. Now it was 3-4, 30-30, and Federer felt comfortable taking the initiative. He chipped and charged the net. The ball sat up for what looked like an easy pass. Except that there is no such thing as an easy pass in the semis of the World Tour Finals against Roger Federer. Murray pulled up and sailed a backhand long. When Federer came in again, with a brilliant inside-in forehand approach, to break on the next point, the momentum had turned for good.
The first set went to a tiebreaker, and Federer saved his most well-measured shotmaking for it. He opened with a forehand winner, and hit another to make it 3-3. In perhaps the match’s biggest point, at 4-4, he came forward, hit a swing volley, and dared Murray to pass him. Murray gave his forehand a rip, straight into the net. At 6-5, Federer finished the set with a surprise serve up the T in the ad court and a deep forehand that drew another error from Murray. The London crowd, firmly in the Swiss man’s corner, roared. It felt like a great escape, and a long climb back for Murray.
That feeling never changed. Federer fed off the positive energy, while Murray sagged visibly and quickly appeared out of ideas. The key was another blown lead by the Scot. Up 40-0 on his serve at 1-1, Murray grew passive, let the game get back to deuce, and sliced a backhand limply into the net. Federer pounced again, breaking with another inside-in forehand. When Murray ended the following game by half-heartedly slicing a forehand drop shot into the bottom of the net, he appeared gutted and at sea. The fiery attack of the first set was long gone. At 4-2, Federer put him out of his misery with another chip and charge off of a second serve, and a sharp crosscourt backhand pass to break. Federer’s 7-6(5), 6-2 win was soon complete, and he was off to his third straight final at the 02 Arena.
Two stat stand out: Murray’s percentage of points won on his second serve (37), and the number of returns Federer missed on second serves (0; he was 34 for 34). Against most of today’s two-handed baseliners, Muzz can get away with a no-bite, middle-of-the-box second delivery. But Federer made him pay for it, both with his lack of errors and his ability to come forward at strategic moments. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Murray’s second serve is the biggest liability of any shot among the Big 4.
Still, the story today, as it so often is, was Roger Federer. This time it was his sixth sense for what tactic to use at what moment, for when to attack and when to be safe, for keeping the score close before seizing his opportunity, for taking what's given to him, that was on display most prominently. Federer showed that it’s not enough to have an aggressive “mindset,” which is what Murray has spent the season developing. You have to use your mind to make it work for you from one situation to the next.
The next situation for Federer is Novak Djokovic. Their final tomorrow will be a fitting end to 2012. Each has a major and two wins against the other. One is No. 1 and the other No. 2. The winner may be the Player of the Year. Neither wants an up year to end on a down note.