Murray's best can't stop Rafa's roll
In as fine a contest as we have seen anywhere all year, Rafael Nadal reached the final of the ATP World Finals for the first time in his illustrious career by beating back a spirited third-set challenge from Andy Murray to win 7-6, 3-6, 7-6 on Saturday.
Nadal will play Roger Federer in Sunday's final – the matchup everyone has been waiting for. Not since the final of the Masters 1000 event in Madrid in May have these two great rivals met. After his startlingly decisive demolition of Novak Djokovic in the second semifinal by 6-1, 6-4, Federer will start as favorite.
For 3 hours, 10 minutes during the afternoon, the first- and fifth-ranked players in the world served up a glorious feast of fast and furious tennis for the 17,500 fans at London who were yelling their heads off for their man Murray but were quite happy to cheer some Nadal winners, too.
There were plenty of them to go around, even though most of the unreturnable points were played by an aggressive, confident Murray, who left the pale shadow that had turned up to play Federer on Tuesday locked in his closet.
We needed the real Murray to show up this time, and he did — taking the battle to Nadal, sweeping majestic cross-court backhands out of Rafa’s reach, serving for two sets without being broken and engaging him in long, teasing rallies — one of which lasted an astounding 36 strokes.
This marathon came on the 10th point of the first-set tiebreak, and it enabled Murray to grab a point against Nadal's serve to level it at 5-5. It ended with Nadal blinking first as he tried to stop the endless stream of hard ground strokes with a drop shot. But Murray spotted it and, after racing in to return a deep ball, was there to slice away the backhand volley.
But it wasn't enough. Is it ever enough against Nadal? On the next point Murray netted a backhand on the run and then the man from Mallorca seized his moment with a great approach shot and forehand volley winner to take the breaker 7-5.
When Murray went down 15-40 in his first service game of the second set, there were fears that he might fade away. But one of those sweeping cross-court backhands helped him out of trouble, and he finished the set playing some of the best tennis of his life. Yet again it was that backhand that deprived Nadal of his serve in the seventh game, and Murray, who had been landing first serves at more than a 70 percent clip in the opening set, matched that with some great returns to break a second time, evening a match that was turning into a classic.
The excitement built in the third as Nadal finally found a way to break the Scot’s serve. But when it came to serving for the match at 5-4, Rafa struggled to stay with Murray during a couple of taxing rallies and then, at 30-40, was caught flat-footed by a brilliant backhand pass up the line that raised the roof.
Murray’s service percentage dipped as the match went on, dropping to 51 percent, but even that was a vast improvement over his other matches here and the 22 aces he produced played a huge part in keeping Nadal at bay.
Murray took a while to get used to the fact Nadal was serving to his forehand more than usual and pinpointed, once again, what only those who actually get on court with him can tell you about the world No. 1.
"The spin that he puts on his serve, especially his second one, makes it so hard for you to be aggressive against it," Murray said. "Everyone says you should attack his second serve, but there's so much spin on the ball it's really, really hard to do. That's why he wins so many points behind his second serve."
That was borne out by the match stats — in fact it was about the only stat that ended up in Nadal's favor. He won 60 percent of points off the second compared to Murray’s 51 percent, but the Scot won 85 percent off his first serve to Nadal's 71. And the most interesting stat of all? Throughout the whole match Murray won 114 points to Nadal's 109.
But this is not pingpong. The tennis scoring system is far more clever than that, which is why winning at this level is one of the most difficult things to do in sport. No bell or whistle times you out. You have to win the final point and, once again, Nadal proved himself to be a master of the art.
The third-set breaker seemed to be in Murray's pocket when he led 4-1 after winning the first two Spanish service points with a couple of terrific winners. But then Nadal produced a forehand winner of his own to make it 4-4. After netting a forehand, Murray was wrong-footed on a quick Nadal return and fell, wincing. It seemed as if he might have pulled a muscle, but he was up quickly enough to find himself facing his second match point. (He had saved one on his serve in the ninth game.)
Murray’s response was to charge in, and a surprised Nadal netted his return. Then Murray went for a huge forehand at 6-6 and missed by an inch.
“I went for it, got to be happy with that,” he said. “That the right thing to do in those situations.”
The difference was that, on his third match point, Nadal also went for a huge forehand and whipped it cross court, way out of Murray's reach and watched it land precisely in his opponent's forehand corner. Great shot, great match — unforgettable tennis.
Nadal called it "incredible, no?"
"I am very happy to beat a great champion like Andy," he said. "For me is amazing victory. Even when I was losing 3-0 and then 4-1 in the final tiebreak, I was happy. I was saying, 'Just try to be there because always can still have a chance. But I was happy because I was playing a great match. Even if I lose, I had a fantastic season. My thoughts were — if I lose against Andy playing like this, just congratulate him, go home and be happy for everything."
It was a mutual admiration society, really, because Murray offered similar sentiments.
"I just love playing against him," Murray said. "For me, as a sportsman — I don't think there's been many better than him in the way he conducts himself. His whole team is incredibly nice. I have a lot of respect for him."
But Murray has beaten him four times out of 13 and knows what he has to do to close the gap.
"I need to go away and get better," he said.
Is Federer getting better? Maybe not, but one thing is sure – he is not getting any worse.
Those critics who were mapping out his decline may have to start revising their opinions if he goes on producing the kind of tennis we have seen from him here in London, where he has been playing exclusively against his closest rivals.
Listen to Djokovic: “I think he was playing unbelievable from the first moment. He’s really stepping in, hitting the backhands and forehands all over the court, winners. Every ball kind of listens to him. Comes in, close to the line. It’s very hard. He’s always on top of you, very aggressive. That’s why he’s there.”
Nadal said he was feeling tired. But Federer was not impressed by that.
“He’s probably tucked up in bed, and I’m here doing (a) press conference,” Federer said. “I just hope we play a great match against each other.”