The answer? “Huge.”
In the absence of Rafael Nadal, Federer has done a terrific job at remaining just behind top-ranked Novak Djokovic in the rankings. But Murray has been pressing, hard, since just a few weeks after Wimbledon last summer. With a win over Federer, Murray would stake his claim as the obvious if not digitally-endorsed No. 2.
More important, he’ll also earn another shot at Djokovic, the Down Under dynamo who’s made Murray’s life miserable in Melbourne for two years running. And Murray, like you and I, knows the meaning of the word payback.
Djokovic humiliated Murray in the 2011 final (to the point where Murray was left in tears), beating him like a government mule—Murray won just nine games in three sets. And last year, Djokovic outlasted the Scot in an epic five-set semifinal. A win in Sunday’s final would lay to rest any number of ghosts for Murray, and establish him as, for the time being, the best player in the world.
The only thing standing in the way is this little obstacle called Federer.
Murray is 10-9 against Federer, but he has never beaten the Swiss in a Grand Slam match (you can put that one in the “Most Useless Statistics” file). The head-to-head record harbors no obvious narrative; this isn’t a case of a younger Murray (he’s 25) catching up to and surpassing an elder (Federer is 31). The advantage has been swinging like a pendulum from the get-go, but at the moment it seems stuck between the extremes.
The men are 2-2 in their last four encounters, with Federer triumphant in the Wimbledon final and at the ATP World Tour Finals, while Murray won the gold-medal match at the Olympics in London and their Shanghai Masters semi. One takeaway from that record, which seems to have been the case in a general way as well, is that Federer has a distinct edge in five-set matches.
The rap on Murray before he punched through at the U.S. Open last September was that he’s a different, weaker animal in majors, what with the demands of best-of-five set play over two weeks' time (as opposed to one week Masters events, which he wins left and right). There appeared to be some truth in that assertion, but it’s pretty clear that Murray has overcome that weakness—or, more likely, he’s just become a better player. As he said after the quarterfinals, “Over best-of-five matches, it often takes five hours sometimes to beat the top players in the world. It's not easy.”
Murray has become not just a better player, but a different player. His return is significantly improved, and his forehand now is more of a weapon. In general, he’s playing with greater aggression and—this I think is the key to his success—purpose. He’s no longer content to sit back in a rally and then react to what the other guy is doing. He’s more willing to take charge now.
This is something that Federer, that great master of the unsaid, has noticed. It's also something he hopes to exploit. As Federer said after his five-set quarterfinal win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga:
“Now he's (Murray) playing more offensive. The rallies aren't as long and grueling as they used to be. We both can do that. . . (but) it's a fine line of being overly offensive or overly passive. It's hard to explain, but it's in the details. For instance, you want to be able to know that you can play offensive when it sort of presents itself. I think he's proven his point, that he can do it, time and time again.
“That's what matters I think the most for him now. In the moment itself, how offensive can you play when the ball is coming flat and hard into the middle? You have to know also when to back off. He's very clever at all these things. He knows how it works. But I think it's especially on the return that you see the biggest significant change in his game overall if you look back now.”
The veteran Federer watchers among you will notice how he plants that seed of doubt about Murray (his rhetorical question), and then immediately follows it up with praise, as if to cover his tracks. You know exactly how to read that quote: Andy has done well against me in the past when he was more of a counter-puncher. Let’s see if this new offense-mindedness works for or against him when it comes to my game. . .
Federer also said: “It's very important to be able to rely on your defensive skills. I didn't necessarily work on my defensive skills, but I've finally had again a few weeks of practice, you know. It just shows, you know, practice is good to have in your body.”
Read: My defense is just fine, thank-you very much!
The conditions for this clash could hardly be better, or more well-balanced. Neither man has had a rough tournament, and both ought to have plenty of reserves because the heat hasn’t been a factor. The surface gives neither man an appreciable advantage; both do their best work on medium to fast courts, hard or grass. Neither man is carrying a noteworthy injury. So let’s take a look at how their skills match up:
SERVE: Advantage, Federer. Murray can hit it big alright, but Federer's efficiency is superior, thanks to his somewhat underrated second serve.
FOREHAND: Advantage, Federer. Hitting a bigger forehand has helped transform Murray into a Grand Slam champ, but Federer’s forehand is one of the most versatile and lethal of all time.
BACKHAND: Give Murray the edge, because his relatively flat two-hander is rock solid, while Federer’s one-hander is susceptible to attack and difficult to control when confronting a high-bouncing ball. Both men use the one-handed slice effectively, but Federer is betterer.
VOLLEY: Federer is a gifted net player, while Murray is serviceable. Given Murray’s newfound aggression, the battle between Murray’s net play and Federer’s passing—and lob—game ought to be interesting.
PASSING SHOTS: A slight edge to Murray here, because of his history as a counter-puncher and defensive specialist. But neither man has been forced to live or die by this shot, not in this era of the power baseliner.
LOB: Both men lob well; Federer’s lob is more offensive.
TRANSITION GAME: Federer is deadlier going from defense to offense, but Murray has greater range.
MOTIVATION: Murray is clearly still on the rise, with his peak yet to be determined. Federer is on the far side of his mountain now, but still very close to the summit—close enough to beat anyone.
In my eyes, this match is likely to come down to how well Federer will handle the big points and the occasional lapses that have crept into his game. The first thing to go with players of a certain age is the consistency required to compete successfully at the highest level. Murray has demonstrated over these two weeks that he’s not resting on the laurels he earned last year, which means that while Federer can leave things unsaid, he can’t leave them undone once the ball is in play.