Heartbreak for Murray as a Grand Slam title continues to elude him
Roger Federer plunged a dagger in the collective British heart, but he did it with such transcendent genius that even in their deepest despair they were uplifted.
No consolation for Andy Murray, though, who played a first-rate final himself and deserved better than to lose. Federer, however, had come to reclaim his kingdom. With the 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 win, he had his seventh Wimbledon and 17th major. He was also back at the top of men’s tennis — World No.1 for a 286th week beginning Monday.
As another grey London Sunday turned into a golden-crisp afternoon earlier, the tennis matched the weather. Murray often plays as if under a blue fog of self-loathing, but he seemed to have cleared his sinuses before stepping on to Centre Court.
Because he can afford to, Murray tends to passivity, falling back on his defence to bail him out; perhaps being the tennis nerd he is — his idea of a good time when not on his Playstation is to analyse his opponents on DVD — the long rally delights him.
But, in reshaping his ward’s game, Ivan Lendl has made Murray hit his forehand with greater intensity, and use it, as the great Czech did, as a meat-and-potatoes point-winner. Early on Sunday, Murray chose to boss the court with his forehand.
“I wouldn’t want to be playing me today,” Fred Perry said to an opponent during one of his three triumphs here, and the man seeking to follow him after 76 years was playing as if the words were his.
Since Murray’s returning in the first set was solid — he seemed to have a read on the Federer serve — he was an ever-present threat, making his opponent play the extra ball.
He broke Federer twice in the set, in the very first game after the six-time champion missed first a forehand and then a swing volley, and in the crucial ninth game, after he had run down a drop despite a late start and nearly taken Federer’s head off at the net.
Federer broke back in between, of course, after a moment of blinding brilliance. Having controlled the rally with the backhand slice, keeping Murray behind the baseline at his backhand side, Federer unwound into a sublime single-hander that fit in the top corner.
The Swiss master was having his moments — his flash-fast adjustment to a net-cord ball, which he moulded to the only place he could have, prompted a fan to scream out, “You’re a genius, Roger. A genius!” — but he was making too many errors.
He had chances to break in the eighth game of the first set and again early in the second, but he couldn’t take them. Nearly every time, Murray was responding with direct tennis: a stiff first serve followed by an unhesitating first strike.
Off his second serves, he was steady, not put-it-back-in-and-reset-the-rally steady, but pushing, pressuring steady.
Federer’s serve was increasingly coming under threat. He wasn’t getting many free points on his first serve, and often he was surviving by making it up as he went along. But he was doing what champions do: he was staying close to his opponent, hanging on with everything he had, so he could strike should an opportunity arise.
Something from nothing
Then, Federer did what only the greatest of champions do: he fashioned something from nothing. At 6-5, 30-all on the Murray serve, Federer trusted his preternatural understanding of the way a ball behaves on grass and the manner in which a tennis court is spatially laid out.
He subtly shifted two rallies from defensive positions, flicking either a forehand or a backhand with a more acute angle and a touch more side-top spin, so Murray was pulled wider and wider. He then moved in to take charge of the net.
The first time, Murray stretched him with a great defence-to-offence get of his own. But Federer glided to his right and cut under and outside the ball so it curved back in and kept low. Murray’s on-the-run lob went long. The second time, Federer sheared across the backhand volley, so it slid away from a late-arriving Murray. The second set was his.
The third set, which was resumed under the roof after a sudden heavy shower, turned in the sixth game, a long-drawn affair of 10 deuces, nerveless radiance and muffled mediocrity from both players. Federer ended it with an inside-out forehand, feet withdrawing as he hit it, but the rest of the set wasn’t straightforward.
He was more explosive off the ground indoors; his serve, however, was still misbehaving. Down two sets to one despite being the better player for more than half this duration, Andy Murray looked as if he was going to start one of his ‘why-me’ rants. But he held it together, and it came as a surprise when he lost his serve in the fifth game of the fourth.
Federer again summoned a most marvellous shot, a backhand pass lashed cross-court off a Murray approach that stinted for little. Although Murray made it difficult in the final stages, Federer wouldn’t be denied. He crumpled to the ground in tears having served it out, one with his beloved grass.