The Art of Elevating
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Roger Federer
Roger Federer
 

INDIAN WELLS, CA — The last time we saw Andy Murray across the net from Novak Djokovic, he was suffering, angrily, through an embarrassing 6-0 fourth-set defeat in the Australian Open final. That was nearly two months ago, but the bad vibes from Melbourne seemed to have followed Murray all the way to Southern California. He began his semifinal against Djokovic on Saturday looking like a man without a prayer or a plan.

In his opening service game, Murray double-faulted and sent a forehand well long to hand Djokovic a break. They were both bad omens. For much of the match’s 88 minutes—it felt much shorter—Murray served poorly and rallied without conviction. He finished with 29 unforced errors against seven winners, and he made just 47 percent of his first serves. Murray was broken four times and won less than half of his service points. None of those stats is a recipe for victory; put them together and you had the most one-sided result between Djokovic and Murray in seven years.
 

 Murray pinned most of the blame on the lethargic way he opened each set—he was quickly down 0-3 both times. “I think, obviously I didn’t start either of the sets well,” he said. “That obviously makes things difficult against the best players. I mean, Novak didn’t give me any free points, and I made a few too many errors early on.”

If Murray was looking for freebies from his opponent, he was bound to be disappointed. Djokovic has been the world’s best player on slow hard courts for years; if anything, with his fifth Australian Open title, he’s put even more distance between himself and the pack recently. Watching the early rallies between the two, it was easy to see why Murray might feel as if he had few tactical options. Djokovic was connecting cleanly from both sides, to both corners of the court, and running everything down without much trouble—when he was pushed, his forehand got stronger. And anytime you can win more points on your opponent's serve than he does, you’ve gone above and beyond with your return game.

“Even though it was a straight-set victory, I still had to earn it,” said Djokovic, who didn’t hold back in his critique of Murray. “I thought that he hasn't played close to his highest level [today]. Made a lot of unforced errors, especially from the forehand side. Low percentage of first serves in... I thought I played solid, with the right intensity from the beginning. Good first-serve percentage. Got some free points there in the important moments. Just overall it was a good performance.”

Djokovic has now beaten Murray six straight times and in nine of their last 10 meetings, and he leads their head to head 17-8. Murray, who mentioned these horrid numbers at the Australian Open, looked as if he had no answers for the question of how to break Djokovic down. He eventually loosened up on his ground strokes, but he didn’t try to change the pace or the basic pattern of play. A winning point was quickly followed by two losing ones, as if Murray didn’t even believe in his own success.
 

 Does this still qualify as a rivalry? And where does Murray stand in relation to his old colleagues, the Big 3? Since returning from back surgery 15 months ago, he’s 0-11 against Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal. When that subject was broached today, neither player had an explanation. By the time he was through answering, Murray had begun to sound the way he did in the years before he won a major, when he was still looking up to the legendary Big 3 and bemoaning the unlucky fact that he had to play during their era.

“The guys that are ahead of me just now that I’m competing with,” Murray said today, “their consistency is pretty much unheard of. Very few players have ever been able to do what they have. So unfortunately I end up getting questioned about why I haven’t done as well in the Slams or haven’t done as well in the Masters Series.”

When it came to Djokovic, Murray sounded as resigned in the interview room as he looked on court.

“He’s extremely consistent,” Murray said of Djokovic. “He very rarely plays poor matches. I mean, one or two a year, whereas maybe a couple of years ago it might have been a few more. Now that’s very rare for him.”

Djokovic plays more than “one or two” poor matches over the course of a year, but I understand why an opponent might get the impression that he's invincible. These days you certainly can’t go out there hoping he’ll give you any points, especially if your name is Andy Murray.


 *****

It’s hard to think of a more daunting assignment in tennis: Beating Nadal one day and trying to beat Federer less than 24 hours later. That hasn’t happened often, if ever, and it didn’t happen when Milos Raonic tried to do it on Saturday. A day after squirming past Nadal in three tense sets and three warm hours, Raonic came up a shot or two short in a 7-5, 6-4 loss to Federer.

A shot or two is often what makes the difference in a match involving Raonic. Against Nadal, on a day when he lived on the precipice of defeat, Raonic made everything he needed to make. But the precipice of defeat is not a place you want to visit for long, and the Canadian eventually came crashing down from it against Federer.
 

 After holding off a break point at 2-2 with a service winner, and another at 5-5 with a 143-m.p.h. ace, Raonic was finally broken when he sent a backhand wide. That shot cost him not just the first set, but the second one as well. With momentum on his side, Federer broke again to open the second set with a masterful one-two backhand punch. He pulled Raonic wide with a slowly bending crosscourt slice, before firing a backhand drive into the open court for a winner. Five mostly routine holds later, the match was his.

The previous day, Nadal said he believed that the biggest difference between his match-up with Raonic and Federer’s match-up with Raonic was the serve—Roger's is better than Rafa's. And so it proved to be. Federer faced just one break point, and he erased it in a way that must have given his opponent a dismal sense of déjà vu: With a 124-m.p.h service winner. Live by the missile, die by the missile.

“He played well,” Raonic said. “He was neutralizing well on the serve, especially during the points I felt like a few times I was able to stretch him. He was doing a good job of getting legs behind and always playing deep cross so I couldn't find that short forehand I was looking for.”

For a second straight day, Federer did pretty much everything well, and in the process disarmed a potentially dangerous opponent. He won 79 percent of his first-serve points, made just 11 errors, and as Raonic said, covered the corners of the court like a man 10 years younger. Federer also saved a crucial tactical change-up for just the right moment. At 5-5 in the first set, he went to the slice with his backhand almost exclusively. The long, lanky Raonic struggles to get under that shot, and he made three errors in that game while trying to return it.

It was once thought that Federer’s reflexes had slowed enough that he would no longer be able to handle the big serve; no one thought that today. It was once thought that slower surfaces were making it difficult for him to hang with his younger, more consistent competition. No one can say that the notoriously slow courts at Indian Wells have hurt him recently; he won the title here in 2012, and is now in his second straight final.

It was also once thought that by age 33, Federer, like most of us, would have lost a step or started missing a ball that he hadn’t missed before. Neither of those things have happened. It only takes one or two missed shots at the wrong time to lose to Raonic, but Federer, as he showed today, is still making them all.

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