At Centre Court: seeing Federer, and what Murray got wrong against Roddick

(No, that isn’t Judy Murray in the seat in front.)
On Friday I was at Wimbledon, at the centre court, to see the men’s semifinals. Thank you, Electronic Arts, which invited me and a few other journalists (from the Sun, Sky, Comic Relief and a few others) along for a chat and also, of course, to see the two matches: Roger Federer v Tommy Haas, and Andy Murray v Andy Roddick.

It’s been a long time since I was at Wimbledon. I attended every single day between 1985 to 1992 inclusive, and that included the Monday final of the doubles in 1992 when McEnroe won with Michael Stich. (Goes away to check. Yup. Correct. Memory doesn’t fail there.) I’d also attended the second week of every French Open in that period. In 1991 I went and reported on every Grand Slam event – Australian, French Open, Wimbledon, US Open. The 1991 US event was particularly notable for Jimmy Connors’s amazing run to the semifinals, where his strange flat shots befuddled player after player used to topspin madness. “Does Connors have the perfect game to play guys like you?” I asked Paul Haarhuis, whom Connors had beaten. The slightly testy reply: “If he did, everyone would play like that, wouldn’t they?”

But by then I’d got kind of bored with the game: it didn’t seem to have the zing and excitement I’d liked in the early years. So I just gave it up, pretty much cold turkey, and didn’t go back. But that was after six years of seeing every Wimbledon final from the press seats, which are slightly above and behind the Royal Box. A great place to be: saw Pat Cash climb up the roof to celebrate his 1987 win, for example.

Fast-forward to a couple of years ago. I still wasn’t interested in tennis, which seemed to me to reach a nadir beneath words with Pete Sampras’s ascent: he turned it into a serve, volley, go home game. And he had the personality of a plank.

Then I read a piece by Martina Navratilova about some guy called Roger Federer. Specifically, this:

I was lucky enough to play mixed doubles with him in Hong Kong at an exhibition in January this year. When they asked me if I wanted to play doubles with Roger, I asked, “great, how much do I have to pay you?”. It was a real treat because he was simply a joy to be on the court with. Then he asked me to practise with him and I got to hit for 45 minutes just one on one, which was phenomenal because I really got to feel how he hits the ball.

When Martina says things like that, everyone should listen. If she wants to be on the court with someone, that’s someone worth paying a lot of attention to. When I was covering the circuit she and Steffi Graf were the only two women whose press conferences were consistently interesting, because they were. So – why the fuss about Federer, Martina?

When he hits his forehand he can hook it so that he can go cross-court or down the line, tailing away from you because of all the topspin. He can hit a forehand cross-court so that it jumps at your body, which is effective on any surface but particularly on grass because it’s almost as though he’s inducing a bad bounce because he makes the ball jump differently and that’s what his kick-serve does as well.

He’s got spin on everything, he’s got a heavy slice that stays low, he can float the ball so that it stays low and just dies on the court so you have to create all the pace, or he can knife it so that it skids through. On his groundstrokes he can hit it harder or can hit a cross-court ball that looks like it’s going to be no problem until it suddenly takes off in the other direction after it bounces.

Well, that was good enough for me. So I started watching again. And indeed, Federer is the magic that she said.

But until Friday I hadn’t seen that magic live, and the difference between live and on TV is huge, let me tell you.

Centre Court, of course, is its own special place: far more intimate than you realise from the TV. And indeed, when Federer plays, the magic is there. I was sitting at a place diagonally off one corner, quite high up (so you can confirm the line calls easily), which means it’s hard to see whether the court is open for a pass (that you can see far better when you’re directly behind the court).

With Federer playing Tommy Haas (who always sounds to me like he should be the lead singer of a German heavy metal band), the principal difference between them was the noise when Federer really smacked his forehand. It was a whipcrack, and zinged across the court. Haas gave a good account of himself – as with most pro matches, the difference was only in a few points here and there.

But it’s what the TV doesn’t show you that’s interesting. Such as how between points, if he’s receiving serve, Federer will get any ball down his end from the ballgirl/boy and slice it up the court, lazily floating along with the combined langour and intention of a cruise missile.

Then there’s the way Federer looks slightly grumpily at the court where he was when he lost a point, as though it’s somehow the court’s fault he mishit that forehand. Well, it might have been. But it’s more like a habit.

And boy, do the players have habits. I’d forgotten how they love to do the same things over and over again. Wimbledon could be retitled The Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Challenge. Towel between points: Andy Murray is the champion here. He was wiping his face with the towel even though he had two sweatbands on his wrists. (Pity the ballboys and girls who had to run out to him between every point with the towel outstretched. In their future lives, they’ll make great parents for needy children.)

Which brings us to Murray against Roddick. The expectation was that Murray could win this, since he had a 6-2 record against Roddick, and had previously beaten him handily in three sets at Wimbledon a year or two back.

(Let me just point out to those who might wonder if I know anything about this game these two posts from this blog:

First, in Sept 2007:

Plus Murray has the potential to be one of the top three players in the world if he can get past this year’s injury.

Second, July 2005:

Murray is going to be top 50 within a year, top 10 – likely five – the next one. Talent will out. He made Johansson look quite ordinary for a while at Queen’s.

But Roddick, who has lost a stone recently (so I’m told), wasn’t interested in the past. He came out slamming his serve down.

It’s when you’re up against a big server that your mental strength is really tested, because you have to keep waiting for the little chance to pop up that will let you win the point, break point, game, set.

Roddick was thudding the ball in. But here’s the contrast between Federer and Murray. Haas was bombing his serve too: 126mph or so. OK, so Roddick had about another 10mph on that. But Federer was returning the serve on the baseline. Murray was about three yards back from the baseline.

What you love, if you’re a big server, is a lot of space to aim into. It gives you a feeling of freedom: you can relax. You know where the other person’s going to be, so you can pick your spot and aim for it.

That was Murray’s first big mistake. He didn’t vary where he stood. Even if he had sometimes stood on the baseline – even if it was going to be hopeless – that would have made Roddick think a little bit. If he had stood further back sometimes, so he’d have more of a chance to run at the ball, that would have made a difference. As it was, he remained in the same two places – one for first serve, one for second serve – through the match, and that didn’t help him. It didn’t put any doubt in Roddick’s mind. By contrast, in 1991 I saw McEnroe beat Becker at the Australian Open by basically standing on or even inside the baseline to return serve – bang it back and rush the net. An amazing strategy, and it worked.

Murray’s second big mistake: he wasn’t forcing the rallies. Once the points had gone beyond serve-return, Roddick was typically standing about a yard behind the baseline, driving the ball, being aggressive so that he could dictate the points. Murray, by contrast, was a couple of yards behind the baseline – and it seemed to me that quite a few of the attempted passes that landed in the net failed because he hit them just that bit further back: the ball had begun dropping. Sure, that ignores all the great shots he hit, but tennis at this level is a matter of inches (even less: the Hawkeye call in the fourth-set tiebreaker that would have given Murray a mini-break-back was perhaps half a centimetre out), and you can’t afford to give free shots.

So both those mistakes are essentially the same thing: not

The umpire’s warning in the fourth set for “audible obscenity” was daft – Murray had tried a crosscourt backhand pass, missed it wide, and yelled “No, go for the pass!” (He was down my end, my side, facing away from the umpire.) It was ridiculous; Murray was right to complain, but he held it down well. McEnroe of course would have had the referee on the court in an eyeblink. Times past.

Things you don’t see on TV: when Murray is serving, he takes three balls, and always knocks the extra back to the ballboy/girl with his racket between his legs. Always. (Why do pros take three balls? Because they want the two least fluffy ones. They pick the two least fluffy of the three.)

And then we have Murray’s third mistake, which isn’t so much of a mistake as a failing: his second serve, specifically on the ad (15-0) side. Too much of the time it was too slow, and Roddick could wait for it – expecting it on the backhand, where it would come again and again – and whack it down. From the moment that the first serve plonked into the net (because Murray wasn’t tossing the ball quite high enough) Roddick controlled the point. Too infrequently did Murray mix it up with second serves down the centre, or into the body. (Can’t find a page with that sort of analysis anywhere that would show where the serves landed and so on. Let me know in the comments if it exists.)

Oh yeah, and let’s go back to all the mindless rubbish that was written ahead of the game about Roddick’s tactics:

They last clashed in Doha in January, when Murray easily came out on top 6-4 6-2.

The memory of that defeat led [Larry] Stefanki [Roddick’s coach, and a long time ago John McEnroe’s coach) to suggest on Wednesday that Roddick could try less aggressive tactics this time in a bid to upset the Scot’s rhythm.

Complete rubbish, and utter mind games intended to lead Murray and his team astray: Murray may say he doesn’t read the papers, but it’s a bet that someone there does and that they might make a mention to him in some roundabout way. At least Jeff Tarango – a former player – does himself say that’s rubbish advice, but there’s plenty of papers that just repeated it. Perhaps the nationals need to hire a few people who’ve actually played the game to analyse this stuff.

Anyway, all of this leads us to the final, where we get Mr Five Times Already against Mr Been There Twice But No Titles Yet. It’s hard to see any simple way to pick anyone but Federer here. They’ve played many times, and Federer has the winning habit. The last time Roddick won was in March 08, when I think Federer may have been still recovering from glandular fever.

I think Federer will not make the mistakes that Murray did: he will try to break up Roddick’s rhythm, he won’t give him a consistent place to serve at, and his ground game is awesome to behold.

Anyhow, I’ll be tweeting it at @pokpokclap. Follow me if you’d like.

1 Comment

  1. Wonderful stuff Charles – such a shame (for us, if not for you) that you’re no longer doing your tennis writing…

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