Tennis

Murray brings new spin to tennis

Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal of Spain pose after the final in Japan.
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Richard Evans

Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." Follow him on Twitter.

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Andy Murray has beaten Rafael Nadal before, but not like this.

The Scot’s 3-6, 6-2, 6-0 demolition of the world's No. 2 on Sunday in the final of the Japan Open in Tokyo has given the end of the 2011 men’s tour a completely new complexion.

We have spoken before of the remarkable hold the top four have enjoyed on the game for the past few years, and some critics question whether we should only talk about a top three. Murray, the one without a Grand Slam title, is in the process of demonstrating why it is impossible to keep him out of the equation.

Since winning the Masters Series title in Cincinnati in August, Murray has lost just one match — to Nadal in the US Open semifinals — and has racked up two more ATP tour titles, including his victory last week in Bangkok. That takes his tally of career ATP tour titles to 20.

Suddenly, a year that was being dominated by one man has been hijacked by another. Novak Djokovic has a bad back, which is hardly surprising after the amount of attritional tennis he has played during the course of his phenomenal year, and Roger Federer is conserving his energy in preparation for the defense of his ATP World Tour Finals title in London at the end of November.

That leaves Nadal and Murray to lead the tour into the penultimate ATP Masters Series of the year, which already is under way in Shanghai. Nadal is the No. 1 seed and would have been most people’s favorite to lift the title. Not anymore.

Quite apart from the fact that the Spaniard is developing a disturbing habit of losing in finals — it has happened seven times this year — Murray is playing the kind of tennis that makes him, in Rafa’s words, “unstoppable.”

The statistic that stands out from the final in Tokyo was the miserly four points Murray relinquished in the final set. Four points in a set against a fit Nadal? Murray had beaten him 6-0 in the third in Rotterdam in 2009, but Nadal was injured on that occasion. Not this time. He was simply hit off the court.

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It was not errors that cost the Spaniard the match. Apart from a couple of missed groundstrokes and one awful bounced smash that he put into the net, the outcome was not decided by Nadal but by Murray.

The British No. 1 hit winners at will from every corner of the court — forehand, backhand, it didn’t matter. They just left the game’s greatest defensive player stranded miles from where he would have expected himself to be.

The second-to-last point of the match was typical. Murray, who had decided not to be quite as aggressive as he had been while outplaying David Ferrer — another supposedly impregnable wall — in the semifinals, played a heavy topspin forehand crosscourt.

Nadal returned off his backhand with a hard-hit, high, bouncing shot that landed near the apex of Murray’s forehand corner. On the run, Murray leaped at it and, with both feet off the ground, pummeled a forehand down the line. Nadal just stared at it. Front-row spectators weren’t much farther away from the ball than he was.

So the question now is a matter of stamina. Having won back-to-back titles — and given himself a little extra exercise by wrapping up the Tokyo doubles title with his brother Jamie — can Murray maintain this level of performance through another, even tougher, week?

A first-round bye will give him a little extra respite, but he soon may find himself facing either Stan Wawrinka or, perhaps, Donald Young, who came through the qualifying along with another American, Ryan Harrison. (Harrison opens against Serbian Davis Cup star Viktor Troicki.)

Later, Murray should find himself playing skillful Frenchman Gilles Simon in the quarters and, possibly, Mardy Fish in the semis. Fish, who will be hoping to build still further on what has been the most successful year of his long career, will start against either South Africa’s big-serving Kevin Anderson or talented Australian teenager Bernard Tomic. As the No. 4 seed, Fish also has a first-round bye.

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There was nothing much wrong with Nadal’s form in Japan until he ran into Murray, but he will need to shrug off that loss and be at peak form if he is to get past big Czech Tomas Berdych, whom he beat in the 2010 Wimbledon final.

The pair should meet in the quarterfinals, and Berdych is coming off a fine win in Beijing in which he helped his chances of qualifying for the top eight in London by beating Croatia’s Marin Cilic from a set down in the final. Providing he wins, Nadal probably would need to get past his compatriot Ferrer in the semifinals.

So another Nadal-Murray final is a possibility, with Murray knowing that anything but victory will mean he will drop points off the computer as he won this tournament last year. The Scot has announced a No. 3 finish in the year-end rankings as his immediate goal, which would mean getting past Federer.

Much will depend on the state of Djokovic’s back. No word yet on whether he intends to play the ATP Masters Series in Paris at the start of November, but with so much accomplished this year, I doubt he will push himself. The body can only take so much, and his obviously is in need of a rest.

Meanwhile, Murray will be the one asking a lot of himself, and his dedicated team of trainers will be working overtime to ensure that their man is up for the challenge.

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