Man, Handled

Tokyo, Final

(2) Murray d. (1) Nadal, 3/6 6/2 6/0

The question of why a non-British person might support Andy Murray is a nice one, and when pressed most fans tend to give wildly varying, if not downright conflicting, reasons. Some point to his backhand, others to his his sturdy, pale legs. Still others appreciate his  calm and carefree demeanour. Whatever the reason, days like today offer something of a grand unified theory: when he plays like this, there is no one better. He dropped the opening set to Rafael Nadal, but then proceeded to eradicate the defending champion in a display so masterful that it must depressingly be termed Djokovic-like. He allowed Nadal just four points in the final set. If his play was nearly perfect, it was also perfectly judged, and the sumptuous verve with which he released torrents of winners will not only delight his fans, but will reinforce a dangerous precedent. There is a globally-cherished belief that Murray’s best chance at beating Nadal lies in remaining aggressive. Pundits implore him to do so endlessly. What they’ve forgotten to mention is that he should also do it well.

Broken-hearted, Murray remarked after the Wimbledon semifinal that he was now certain that whatever the question posed by Nadal, untrammelled aggression was not the answer. It was a clear admonishment to the tactless commentariat that advises Murray to press whenever possible. See what happens? the subtext ran. Leveller heads retorted that it wasn’t enough simply to be ultra aggressive. You still had to play well. They in turn pointed back to the Australian Open quarterfinal in 2010, when Murray pushed Nadal so hard that the Spaniard’s knee exploded. Now they can point to the Tokyo final of 2011.

The issue, as I’ve remarked before, is that the moment Murray’s aggression is trammelled, he grows pensive, passive and doubtful. From there, he finds it difficult to attack even when the opportunity arises, since he mostly lacks the transitional virtuosity of his immediate peers, even Djokovic. He usually comes out and either attacks or defends, but hardly ever both in the same point, and rarely in the same game. But then, every now and again, everything clicks into place, and suddenly his renowned court-sense is augmented by a deeper intuition. Like Djokovic, Nadal or Federer, he suddenly looks to be playing a purer sport, privy to hidden geometries, and fundamentally aware of every shot his opponent might possibly play. In the last set and a half today, Murray apparently had all the time in the world.

Whether this result will come to mean anything beyond itself remains an open question. After all, Tokyo is only a 500 event, if one of the better ones. If Murray follows up by defending his Shanghai Masters title, then his fans will be justified in their mounting excitement. Of course, justified or not, they are naturally excited already, and doubtless a mite frustrated that so rich a vein of form had to be struck in October, with no major until January. That is another thing they usually mention – how infuriatingly endearing it is, the way their hero seems always to peak at all the wrong moments. Some others mention family, which was brought to fore soon afterwards when he combined with his brother to win the doubles title.

As for Nadal, he made all the right noises in his speech afterwards, but you’d have to imagine this one hurt. He has now lost seven finals this year, and until now he could console himself that the other losses had all been to Djokovic, which may not have alleviated their rawness, but at least offered him a way of cordoning off the pain. But even Djokovic hadn’t fed him a bagel. It also keeps alive his astonishing record of having never defended a hardcourt title.

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