No. 6: War at the Agora

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If, as reported, the Valencia Open is to be no more, and Santiago Calatrava’s great, belly-of-the-whale Agora stadium has hosted its last match, at least they went out in style. Andy Murray’s 3-6, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (8) win over Tommy Robredo in the 2014 final was the war of the year, and the most exhaustively, exhaustingly entertaining three hours and 20 minutes of tennis I watched this season.

The fact that Murray saved five match points, after saving the same number against Robredo a month earlier in the Shenzhen final, only added to the surreal quality of this one. And it made the “handshake” in Valencia—also among the season’s best—much more understandable from poor T-Rob's viewpoint. Murray’s win here marked the peak of his long, 11th-hour run to the World Tour Finals in London. He was a big reason that this was the best fall season in memory.

The War at the Agora comes in at No. 6 on our list of the 10 best matches of 2014. The first clip above takes you to 6-6 in the third-set tiebreaker; the second clip gives you the rest. 

When someone tries to say that tennis is just about the Slams, or that the end of the year doesn’t mean anything, direct them to this one. It’s remarkable what the sport can offer on a seemingly slow weekend in October.

*****

—You can see from the start that this is going to be a war of attrition. Baseline tennis on slow-to-medium-paced courts has precious few defenders, and there’s no doubt that, like all other types of match-ups in tennis, it can lead to monotony. But if the score stays competitive, and the players get more desperate to find a way to put the ball past each other, it can also produce something special—a beautiful, helpless viciousness. That’s what happens here: Robredo can’t hit the ball hard enough to put it by Murray, and Murray is mostly unwilling to take the risks needed to bash it past Robredo. So they’re called on to use all of their mental, physical, and shot-making reserves to win points.

Murray the quixotic counterpuncher had a knack for these mini-epics in 2014. He won two marathons from match point down against Robredo, beat David Ferrer in three long sets for the Vienna title, and lost in similarly lengthy, painful fashion to Grigor Dimitrov in Acapulco. Murray’s back, which was surgically repaired last year, was fully tested in 2014.

—It was really tested down the season's stretch. Murray was playing for the fifth straight week in Valencia, a span of time that took him to Asia and back to Europe. By the sixth game here he’s already leaning over in exhaustion. By the end of the first set, you might think these guys had already been out there for four hours. 

—Over the last two years, Robredo has transformed himself from second-tier cannon fodder to an aging gem of a player. At 32, after 16 seasons on tour, he’s tougher to beat than ever. I often think he looks more confident when he’s down two sets to love at a major than any other time—he won three consecutive matches from that position at the 2013 French Open. From take-back to follow-through, his strokes have always been exceptionally polished; he makes broad, perfect circles in the air with his swings. His topspin one-hander is obviously nice, but in this clip I really notice how smoothly he comes through his slice.

Somehow, though, none of that has ever made me actually want to watch Robredo play. He’s a little too smooth, and not quite explosive enough, to make for great tennis spectating. But you can only respect what this pro’s pro has done since he turned 30. Even in defeat here, he saved match points and fought with class the whole way.

—As the match progresses, and the feeling-out process ends, the points begin to both quicken and lengthen. Desperation sets in early for both guys as they try to find a way around each other. By the middle of the second set, they’ve begun to look a little punch drunk. They’re also using more of the court. Murray and Robredo know what they’re doing at the net, even if their natural inclination is to stay away from it.

The previous week, Murray had belted his way to a win over Ferrer in Vienna, and I briefly speculated, in a post entitled “When Andy Attacks,” that it might signal a change to a more aggressive stance from him in the future. But in Valencia he gravitated back to the baseline, until he was forced in. It’s interesting, though, that his most spectacular match-point save, at 5-6 in the third-set breaker, is won with a very self-assured putaway forehand volley. Murray has that shot, if he wants it.

—Robredo hits one of the shots of the year at 4-4 in the second-set tiebreaker, a backhand pass from somewhere down near Seville. Or, as I wrote at the time:

“Robredo came up with a ludicrously unlikely backhand stab that appeared to be floating long until it dropped like a stone in the corner. Murray, literally staggered, could only respond with a thousand-yard stare of disbelief. The shot was a cherry on top of this match’s very rich cake.”

What made this match more special was that Murray had an answer for that shot in the the third set, a forehand pass hit from well off the court that stunned Robredo.

—It was the longest ATP final of the year; Murray hit 45 winners to Robredo’s 39. This is how I described Murray's between-point performance, much of which you don't see in these highlights:

 “Murray spent the third set staggering around the court, zombie-like and nearly delirious. He talked to himself non-stop, flashed a demented smile after his errors, rambled on to invisible interlocutors, and struggled to stay on his feet between points—that is when he didn’t finish them flat on his back.”

That’s how Murray finished the last two points, flat on his back. He can, as Virginia Wade once said, be a bit of a drama queen. But would you have wanted this match to end any other way?

—Robredo’s two-fingered salute at the net was equally appropriate. But he did it with a smile and a hug, and he summed the evening up perfectly: 

“It was an amazing match," Robredo said, "and you have to enjoy it. Unfortunately, someone has to win.”

We talk a lot about how tennis needs to be sped up; this match showed how much the slow baseline game, played to the hilt, with no corner of the court left uncovered, can offer. Brutal can be beautiful, too.


The Top 10 Matches of 2014

No. 1: Djokovic d. Federer at Wimbledon
No. 2: Sharapova d. Halep at Roland Garros
No. 3: Kvitova d. V. Williams at Wimbledon
No. 4: S. Williams d. Wozniacki at WTA Finals
No. 5: Wawrinka d. Djokovic at Australian Open
No. 6: Murray d. Robredo at Valencia
No. 7: Federer d. Wawrinka at ATP World Tour Finals
No. 8: Federer d. Monfils at U.S. Open
No. 9: Kvitova d. Kerber at Fed Cup
No. 10: Nishikori d. Ferrer at Madrid

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