Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - '09 Picks: Murray Backlash Starts Here!
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'09 Picks: Murray Backlash Starts Here! 01/05/2009 - 7:06 PM

AmIt’s five days into the new year and I’ve already broken one of my resolutions, which was to write more often on this blog. Does a “January 5 resolution” have any meaning? Hopefully you’ll forgive me the time away. At least I spent it combing the Hill Country of Texas, a place so rich in memorable food that you can accidentally find a world-class restaurant attached to a gas station along the highway (more on that remarkable event in another post).

I knew I needed to get cracking on the 2009 season when I opened the New York Times this morning and stumbled across, in a neglected back corner of the sports section, the first-round results from Brisbane. That’s how you know tennis has returned—there’s no Opening Day or Tip-Off Classic; the scores just creep, unnoticed, back onto the bottom of the sports pages and into the mind-numbing lists of website wire stories.

You may say that it’s too late to begin making my predictions for 2009 now; that reading about Richard Gasquet’s win yesterday in Brisbane gives me a leg up in the picks department. But I’m going to go ahead anyway—it’s already a given that the Boy Prince is going to win two Slams in ’09, right? On top of that fearless forecast, I’ll make five more for the coming year over the next five days. Here's the first.

Prediction No. 1: Andy Murray will not win a Grand Slam in 2009
Reading about all things Murray over the past few months, I’m starting to be reminded of a New Yorker cartoon from the height of the Monica Lewinsky insanity 10 years ago. It pictured a huge balloon in the shape of the most influential intern in history hovering over Washington, D.C., blocking out the sun and monopolizing everyone’s conversations—no one could get away from her.

With his wins in an exhibition in Abu Dhabi this weekend over Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Murray, the world No. 4 and official Most Likely Man to Win His First Grand Slam Soon is now hovering over all conversations about the ATP. A month ago, most of these conversations could be reduced to one question: “Is he going to win in Australia?” Now the chatter seems to have skipped straight to, “Can he become No. 1 this year?” On top of that, we’ve been fed a steady diet of stories about his serious, serious training regimen and his first-class image-polishing machine.

I suppose this is inevitable with a pro who’s covered as thoroughly as Murray. No other player travels with a retinue of journalists the way England's Tim Henman once did and Scotland's Murray does now—it’s a little like the presidential press corps in the States. Murray is ubiquitous in the papers right now, first because he’s been playing well, and second because he’s asked so many darn questions. This has led him to begin trying to control his image, to make it clear right off the bat that no one in the game could possibly be working harder than he is.

This isn’t cynical or inappropriate—if anything it’s a sign of Murray's professional maturity. But how much is too much right now, both for this 21-year-old, and for the rest of the game's players and fans? Is the “inevitability factor” going to cow his opponents in Australia, or will it rebound on him and make him feel like it's either win-it-all or bust? There’s no one I’d like to see win a Slam more than Murray. I love his game and will watch any match he plays. Since he cut back on the chopper-baring tantrums, he’s become one of the sport’s most appealing and intelligent figures, and a guy who has grown both on and off the court each year of his career. His ascendance to the sport’s pinnacle would round out the top of the ATP tour and possibly make it the best we’ve seen in the Open era. Plus, all signs really do point to his making a big breakthrough in 2009. It’s just that Murray is starting to be treated as the favorite in Melbourne, and he isn’t the favorite—Novak Djokovic, the defending champion, Federer, who is looking to tie the Sampras Slam record, and Nadal, the world No. 1 who has never won Down Under, are all just as motivated, just as good, and just as likely to win it. All of them have more experience on the final weekends at majors—Murray has still reached just one Slam semi, at the U.S. Open last September. For him to win this one, he may have to beat two of the top three guys on a big stage, where they’re going to be more comfortable than he is.

At this point, I wonder if Murray will be able to consider any loss in Melbourne, unless it were to come in an all-time classic final against Nadal or Federer, anything other than a failure, or at the very least an irritating delay of plans? If Murray does lose, his momentum will only be slowed temporarily of course, and his season will hardly be lost. But at this time of year a temporary delay in progress at the majors could last a pretty long time. The clay warm-up events heading into the French Open are not going to be the ideal spots for Murray to get rolling again. At Wimbledon, the Federer-Nadal juggernaut, which has reached three straight finals, will be tough to slow. That leaves Flushing Meadows as his most likely venue for Slam success.

It can certainly happen for Murray in Oz (is he more Tin Man or Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion or Dorothy?). I’d say all the members of the Big Four are even money. Murray can take heart from the examples of Nadal and Djokovic, each of whom broke through for their first major titles in just these kinds of highly pressurized circumstances, when they were being touted as favorites coming into the event—Nadal at the 2005 French Open and Djokovic in Melbourne last year. But those guys had one distinct advantage: Nadal didn’t have to face Rafael Nadal in Paris, and Djokovic didn’t have to face himself in Australia. That’s a luxury Murray can’t count on this time.

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Posted by Casper 01/12/2009 at 05:23 PM

I m not sure what everyone else has been watching but Murray's current record is - beaten Djokovic twice - Nadal - twice - Federer 5 times. Thats just in the last 6 months. Federer had not won a match since US Open final over Murray.

Murray is not the same player as he was in the US Open 08, he has added a further 9lbs of muscle, and his fitness levels are out of this world. Murray is now favourite to win AO, hard courts are his best surface, its the start of the year, he is going in on form. The others are going in with losses against him. That has got to give Andy the best possible chance.

Federer got a day and half of rest before the US Open final against Andy because Andy's semi with Nadal ran into two days. So in fact Murray had to play there consecutive days, he wasn't as fit then, as he is now, and even then he still took Nadal's game apart. Nadal even said Andy played better on the second day.

He is a lot stronger, fitter and very confident and his mental strength is amazing.

The Masters cup 08, Andy decided that even tho he had qualified getting Federer's scalp meant more to him than the win. He said he can't go out there and NOT try to beat someone as brilliant as Federer.

Yes his wins have been 3 sets, however he did do a lot of 5 setters in US Open, but as he said, he only has to win 3.

Nadal's knees are knackered, they lasted 10 months last year, just trying to beat Federer, I hate to think what he is going to have to put himself through this year to even come close to what he achieved in 2008, and only in the year Federer was ill. Remember Nadal only won Wimbledon by two points, it wasn't a walk over.

You can't compare Murray to the one in the US Open final, as he is so much better now. He beats most with his quickness around the court. His backhand is second to done, his defense is superior to most. He plays intelligent tennis, its not always about the big power shots with him. His opponents miss and when you replay the shot you see Andy has done something, slowed it down, spun it, kicked it up, dropped it short, lobbed it, he has the full arsnal in his game, very few of them do.

That's how Murray beats them, he is unpredictable, his game is unreadable and the power comes out of no where.
Where as Murray reads their game within a few games in the first set.

Djokovic - good player but mentally weak, has the ability to put Nadal out, but not Murray or Federer.

Nadal - still needs more work on hard court, not a thinker, hits power shots most of the time, or copies play.

Federer - all round genius, but due to age, MIGHT not have the strength NOW to go the whole 5 sets at 110%, Murray knows his weaknesses and he plays to them. Federer either has to change it or strengthen it. If that has not all ready been done, and watching Doha, doesn't look like it has been, and he knows it.

Id put my money on Andy Murray v Federer US OPEN final, and it will be well worth it.

Motivation for each player is so different.

Andy wants his first slam, so he has that fire in his gut and youth.

Federer, NEEDS it because of the records with Pete and he only has 4 chances per year.

Bring it on.

Posted by Stev137 01/14/2009 at 06:20 AM

The Draw will be very important. Tsonga, Roddick, Simon and Del Potro for example all have the capacity to drain these favourites in the quarters. Murray looked spent in the US open final and put in a sub standard effort. Federer is very fit and if the draw is kind they will struggle. Djokovic may also struggle if he goes 5 sets with anyone. Last year he benefited from a sick easy Fed in the semis where Tsonga played his final against Nadal.
The draw makes all the difference.
Fed and Murray are the best chances. Tsonga may surprise and Simon will do well also as potential semi finalists.

Posted by iain 01/15/2009 at 07:37 PM

That was a brilliant post by Casper. I've not read your posts before. But I'm looking forward to. That was a really insightful analysis of Murray's game.

Posted by yarrumydna 01/15/2009 at 10:28 PM

Well said casper! This is Murray`s year and Rafa n Fed know it. How wrong you are Steve but i enjoyed your blog none the less.

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