Last week, we looked at the history of the rivalry between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, analysing the most significant moments in their career head-to-head. You can check it out here: Federer vs Djokovic Head to Head
This week, we’ll take a look at another of the fierce rivalries in the “Big Four”, between Roger Federer (Player Profile) vs Andy Murray (Player Profile) – current Head to Head stands at 9-11, with the Brit winning their last encounter at the 2012 Shanghai Masters.
Murray is one of only two players to have a winning record against Federer, the other being Rafael Nadal. It is a narrow one, however, with the Scot currently leading 10-8. Unlike Djokovic, who took time to assert himself against Federer, Murray embodied the role of nemesis very early on in his meetings with the Swiss, winning six of their first eight matches together. Most of these wins came in non-Grand Slam events, however, and, to date, Federer has won all three of their clashes in the major tournaments. In fact, it wasn’t until the Olympic final that Murray was credited with finally beating Federer when the world was watching. Nevertheless, the newly-crowned US Open champion clearly has a style of play that causes Federer problems. To understand why this is the case, we need to break down the significant aspects of each player’s game.
Over the last decade, Federer’s serve has received less attention than that of the likes of Andy Roddick, Mark Philippoussis or even Ivo Karlovic. While the Swiss lacks their speed, his service is still a major strength. A fluid, effortless motion, with a long and circular wind-up, Federer’s is a highly versatile shot that rarely lets him down. His variation of spin and placement make returning his serve a very difficult task.
Murray has worked very hard on his serve over the years, evolving it from a solidly placed shot to a genuine weapon. He is capable of firing down his first serve at speeds of 130kph, winning cheap points or setting up easy put-aways. Most significant, especially since he teamed up with Ivan Lendl, is the improvement in his second serve. Not only has Murray increased his second serve percentage, he is also kicking it out of the returner’s ideal hitting zone more regularly, enabling him to get the upper hand in rallies from the start.
Neither player has a major advantage in this area of the game, primarily because each man’s return is equally threatening. Federer anticipates so well that he is rarely surprised by an opponent’s serve, while Murray’s block return is recognised as one of the best in tennis, a devastatingly effective weapon-diffuser that can infuriate opponents hoping to misdirect him.
Federer’s one-handed backhand is one of his most lauded shots, a particularly elegant execution that belies an incredible amount of power. Key to Federer’s topspin backhand is superb footwork, which allows him to set up perfectly; he then rotates his upper body with perfect timing to fully accelerate through the ball. Just as important is his backhand slice, an excellent defensive shot that keeps him in many long rallies.
Murray’s two-handed backhand is, at first glance, similar to that of many traditional counter-punchers, a high percentage shot that can be hit flat or with heavy topspin. But it is a deceptively nuanced shot that varies in pace and direction, keeping opponents off-balance even when it does not appear to be hit so hard. Crucially, Murray is also capable of a one-handed slice that floats over the net, carefully working his opponent into a difficult position and setting up the opportunity to go for a winner.
Some experts think that Federer has a tendency to overplay his backhand in rallies, and he does have more difficulty with heavy topspin shots that sit up at shoulder height on his backhand side. Murray, in the past, had a habit of playing too passively with his backhand, concentrating on counter-punching instead of unleashing winners when he had the chance. As the Scot continues to improve in confidence, however, it is likely that he will develop this shot into an even bigger weapon, and trust himself to launch into it more often.
Federer’s forehand is one of his major strengths, a poetic fusion of perfect timing, precise footwork, fully-body rotation and sublime swing. We have seen him hit seemingly impossible forehand winners from all over the court, varying angles, spins and speeds at will. It is a shot that has stunned fans and opponents for almost a decade, and one of the truly great sights in the game.
Murray generally opts for placement and accuracy rather than power with his forehand. He uses a smaller backswing, resulting in less racket-head speed but more control. Murray’s forehand is also a very versatile shot, however, and he is capable of unleashing down-the-line winners when he has outmanoeuvred an opponent.
As Murray’s game evolves, moving from counter-punching to a more aggressive style of play, his forehand could become one of his biggest assets. Federer rarely mis-times on his forehand, but there have been occasions, such as his recent US Open loss to Tomas Berdych, on which it has inexplicably broken down.
This is a difficult area for fans to study in players, as, by definition, mental strength is a function of inner resolve, but we can observe its effects. Little needs to be said about Federer in this regard. Throughout his career, he has been a paragon of fortitude when it comes to big-match situations: he would not have won 17 Grand Slams otherwise. Nevertheless, there have been times when the magnitude of the occasion has got to him, or when he has failed to find a way into a match against an opponent playing particularly well. The 2008 French Open final, in which he won only a handful of games against Nadal, is one example; the Olympic final against Murray another.
Andy Murray’s development in this area has been evident throughout his exceptional summer. A player whose negative body language and tendency to waste energy by berating himself were once notorious, he has managed to temper his worst excesses and maintain focus when it matters. His rebound from a devastating Wimbledon final loss to win the Olympic gold medal just four weeks later was testament to this improvement, a remarkable transformation from the man who mentally checked out of the Australian Open final in 2011 and slumped for months afterwards.
Speculation over how much longer Federer is likely to play clouds all discussion of his rivalries with the other members of the Big Four. But his age must be taken into account, and it is difficult to deny that the gap between him and Nadal, Djokovic and Murray has closed to such an extent that they are now on an equal footing. Federer may well play for many more years, and remain firmly placed at the top of the game. Yet the natural laws of decline must apply to him as they have past champions, and he may find that the consistency he once took for granted is no longer such a dependable feature of his game. In his ongoing rivalry with Andy Murray, this will be compounded by the Scot’s continued improvements, both in his tennis and, perhaps even more significantly, in his level of self-belief. To win future clashes, Federer will have to produce performances similar to that of the Wimbledon final, full of aggression, daring and imagination. This is a lot to ask, even of the greatest player of all time. Murray might never rival Federer in terms of creativity, fluency and grace, but he has the tools to frustrate and derail the Swiss, and he now feels he belongs in the winner’s circle. It would not be surprising if the younger man continued to lead the head-to-head.