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NEW YORK—They played in Paris, they played at Wimbledon, and now they’re going at it one more time in a Grand Slam semifinal. Many things could happen when they face off Saturday in Arthur Ashe Stadium, but one thing is for sure: Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray know each other, and each other’s games, very well.
There have been two poles on Nadal’s tactical radar over the last year. At one extreme sits Roger Federer. Against Federer, Nadal says he knows exactly what to do. When all else fails, or you absolutely need a point, you go to the backhand. If possible, you get the ball to bounce high. But that’s all that’s necessary. Enough balls from Rafa’s forehand to Roger’s backhand, and Federer is going to get worn down.
At the other extreme sits Novak Djokovic. Nadal has said that he really doesn’t know what to do against the ultra-competent Djokovic these days. There are no easy targets, like Federer’s backhand—Djokovic’s two-hander may be his greatest strength—and no patterns that he can reliably create to win him points.
Murray sits somewhere in between these two poles for Nadal. Like Djokovic, the Scot’s two-hander is solid, but unlike him, Murray doesn’t create with his forehand well, and doesn't shift easily from a defensive to an offensive mindset. This leaves Nadal with no sure-fire strategy, but it does gives him more time to work the points the way he wants them.
And he’s worked them well the last two times they’ve played, in Paris and at Wimbledon. The latter match was one of the best of the season for Nadal. My lasting memory of that afternoon is of him pummeling inside-out forehands from mid-court, and Murray lunging hopelessly along the baseline after them. What was interesting about that match, though, was that for a set and a half everything was flowing in the opposite direction. It was Murray who started on the offensive, who dictated, who was overwhelming Nadal with his own forehand. Then he missed an easy one at a crucial moment and completely fell apart.
Somehow, afterward, Murray told us that his mistake had been to be too offensive, and that he should dial it back whe he plays Rafa. Which leaves us with the question of how he’ll approach the Spaniard today at Flushing Meadows. From his words at Wimbledon, from his words about playing safely against John Isner yesterday, and from the evidence of his general approach over the years, it seems that Murray will sit back and let the match come to him.
It’s a difficult-to-impossible balance for Murray to strike. If he sits back too much, he risks Nadal eventually finding his groove, as he did at Wimbledon, and as Isner did in the third and fourth sets yesterday. But Murray's natural game is not to attack, not to go for winners, and if you’re going to be offensive against Nadal, you better hit your targets. Otherwise, Rafa will force to hit two or three risky shots to win a single point, something we know Murray is not going to want to try to do.
Murray was in a positive frame of mind after escaping from a near-death experience against Robin Haase last week, but the orneriness was back against Isner yesterday. That’s not a great sign; Murray let his emotions get the best of him against Rafa in Paris. Worse for him is that Nadal has played at his “highest level,” as he likes to say, since his rebellion in the rain three days ago. His blowout win over Roddick yesterday was vintage Rafa. If Murray caught any of the passing shots he was snapping off, it’s unlikely he’s going to want to venture anywhere near the net—and it would be hard to blame him.
Yesterday Murray was asked about his losses to Nadal in Grand Slam semis. He immediately got his back up and reminded the questioner that he beat Rafa here, in a semi, three years ago. That was indeed a masterful performance by Murray, and he did it with a textured mix of offense and defense, rather than with all-out hitting. He’ll likely want to recreate that texture today, to keep Rafa off-balance with slice backhands and heavy, looping forehands. But 2008 was also a flukey performance from Nadal. In a year when he always seemed to have it, he didn’t have it that day, and he didn’t even appear to want it as badly as he usually does. He’ll want it today.
The Pick: Nadal