“Being a good match player,” Andy Murray toldSky Sports after his 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 win over Dominic Thiem in Miami on Wednesday, “is understanding when to go for your shots and when to back off a little bit.”
Murray should know. Earlier this week, he passed the 500-victory mark for his career; most of the other men ahead of him on that list have ended up in tennis’s Hall of Fame. But when it came to win 501 today, Murray could have taken a step backward with his analysis. After all, before you can learn to understand when to go for your shots, and when to back off a little bit, you need to have the ability to do those both of those things. This, as Murray showed today, is a big part of the difference between his cohorts at the top of the rankings, and the hundreds of men on tour trying, for the most part futilely, to catch them.
You could see that difference slowly become clear over the course of Murray’s win over Thiem. The 21-year-old Austrian dominated early. Serve, court positioning, pace of shot, ball-striking, body language: He had the advantage in every category. He broke Murray at 2-1, held with a 130-m.p.h. serve for 5-2, and saved a break point at 5-3 with a brilliant stab backhand volley. From the easy power of his ground strokes to his surprising touch at net, Thiem, who just switched to a Babolat racquet this year, put together perhaps the most complete set of tennis we’ve seen from an ATP up-and-comer against a top player this season. It appeared, for a minute or two, that Murray might suffer the same ignominious fate he had suffered against another youngster, Borna Coric, in Dubai in February.
It still looked that way when Thiem held serve at love for 4-4 in the second set. But just as Murray appeared to be teetering, he used his serve to right himself again. He held for 5-4 with an ace and a service winner. Thiem’s momentum had been stopped dead in its tracks. He would win just one more game.
Murray credited his improved serving and returning, and his ability to push Thiem off the baseline, as keys to his win. Experience doesn’t always pay dividends in tennis—we saw an example of that in Venus Williams’s nervy loss to Carla Suarez Navarro on Tuesday night—but Murray vs. Thiem was a classic case of a player in his prime elevating himself above a player whose talent, while obvious, is still raw.