Melbourne: He finished in tears, with a hole in the toe of his right shoe and tugging at cycling shorts that were annoyingly tight, but, while there are nicer ways of putting it, there is no escaping the conclusion that at key points in the final of the Australian Open Andy Murray let himself, rather than anybody else, down.
He knows it. And he knows, too, that losing for the second time in straight sets in a Grand Slam final to Roger Federer should be cause for honest reassessment rather than disconsolate brooding.
Murray was not in the mood to speculate about where such an anti-climax leaves the start of his year, except to say he will rest “and see what I want to do in terms of my game”. In all likelihood he will fine-tune his wait-and-see strategy and, when he looks at the tapes, he will see there were several moments when he should have volleyed rather than extend the point, or risked moving Federer about more on his forehand, instead of banging relentlessly at his slightly weaker wing.
There were two Murrays at this Open: the aggressive, daring one whose calculating assessment of Rafael Nadal’s game brought his own tennis to near a pitch; and the Murray for whom caution against Marin Cilic resulted in his dropping a set for the first time.
Federer got the Cilic Murray — without the bounce back. Murray conceded: “I had a chance at the beginning of the match and I had chances at the end of the match. It’s just the second set that didn’t go my way — not that any of them went my way.”
But any notion that he choked ought to be dismissed. Federer said he did not detect any sign of nerves in Murray, either before or during the match, and was quick to add (as a counterpoint to his pre-match mind games): “He’s a great player.”
Federer, none the less, was brutal enough to add: “He’s obviously a very patient man from the baseline.” He described it as Murray’s strength, which it is, but it also proved to be his weakness in this final because it bred indecision rather than calculation. There were few moments when Murray out-thought Federer.
There were worryingly long passages of play, certainly in the second set, when Murray’s feet were leaden, his movements stiff. The first step, so assured in his six matches on the way to the final, was hesitant. And his mind looked all over the place.
It was not a lack of courage, but of conviction that we witnessed in the Rod Laver Arena. This was a better fight than the first one he had in a major with Federer, at Flushing Meadows 17 months ago, but neither the Scot’s bravery nor his tearful and good-humoured public response to defeat should disguise the central failing of his performance: he did not totally trust his talent.
The mark of his valour was best witnessed in the concluding, desperate third set, which lasted an hour and 12 minutes and was rounded out by the longest tie-break in the modern history of finals at these championships, as Murray struggled against his own game and the superiority of his opponent.
There cannot have been a dispassionate soul in the house, or lover of sporting drama anywhere, who was not willing him to either capitalise on his break of service midway through that set, or convert one of the five set-points he held in the tie-break. His inability to do so was, he said, what led him to break down in tears when called to the podium to accept the loser’s plate, surely one of the most needlessly cruel trophies an athlete can have foisted upon him in public.
It is easy to see why those emotions exploded the way they did, taking everyone who either knows him well or from a distance by surprise. We saw him laid bare. He was not a machine, he was not cold. He was as vulnerable and exposed as he probably ever has been in his career.
Murray had just come through a contest he had envisaged as an opportunity to frighten Federer, a challenge to his dominance that only Nadal has really provided in big matches in recent years. Having seen off Nadal, Murray felt entitled to believe his chances were good. Murray wanted to emerge from the chasing pack, to start his own era by defeating the king of this one. To get one up on Nadal, who destroyed Federer here last year.
That belief ebbed with each passing shot, with each refusal to volley. When Federer broke him early in the second set, it unravelled after Murray went to the net. His suspicion of risk-taking was reinforced. When Murray saved three break points two games later, he had stayed deep, waiting for a mistake; Federer netted a backhand.
Again, Murray felt justified. If there is an end to Federer’s reign in sight, it is hard to see it from Melbourne. “Tennis could end any minute,” the champion said, “and I’d still be a happy man. It’s a great start to the year; let’s see where it takes me.”
It was the voice of contentment and in stark contrast to that of the young pretender whose day, surely, will come. But it may not happen in Federer’s time, and that would be pretty tough to take. Murray’s goal is not just to win a slam. Even more so after two major defeats, it is to do it against Federer. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010