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Federer vs Murray – Australian Open Semi-Final Preview

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In what must be the most hotly anticipated match so far in the men’s draw, Federer and Murray meet yet again in what has become one of the most compelling rivalries in the men’s game. After trading victories at Wimbledon and the Olympics, the stage has been set for another hotly contested showdown between the Emperor and the Man Who Would Be King. Theirs has been an interesting rivalry – Murray leads their head to head 9-10 overall, but apart from the Olympic finals last year Federer has won all of their most important meetings (particularly of note is that Murray has never beaten Federer in a Grand Slam). But there are articles galore telling the back-story to this match. Instead let’s talk tactics. There will be no bold predictions today – two players of such high caliber meeting on such a grand stage make a mockery of predicting the future. What we will talk about is what each player needs to do to win. The one who does this best will walk away the victor.

So without further ado, here are the five keys to the match.

1) Federer serving wide to the deuce.

Tactical Tennis recently wrote an article on the wide deuce serve and used Federer vs Murray as the example. Fortuitous that, because it lets me link you to a more detailed explanation for those who are interested. Suffice to say this was a huge part of their Wimbledon final last year and will be critical for Murray’s chances. He must find an answer to this, and in truth he has only one real option – he must roll the dice. A careful, consistent return off this serve is sure to be punished consistently. Instead Murray must attack this serve and be willing to make errors off it. He doesn’t need to hurt Federer every time – what he does need is to string together 2 or 3 great returns in a single game and get the break. Passivity on the return here will only play right into Federer’s hands. For Murray, there is danger in safety on this shot.

2) Murray’s first serve percentage

Murray’s service motion has improved dramatically compared to five years ago, but it is not without its flaws. While breaking the motion down in detail is fodder for another day, let’s just all agree that for a 6’3 man, Murray’s first serve % is rather dismal. He has a couple of small technical flaws that make his first serve % drop when he tries to press with pace. Last year Murray at times did a good job of serving for location more than speed, and mixing up his velocities to good effect. However when the chips are down he presses on big points and can string together three or four missed first serves in a row – a huge problem against a player of Federer’s caliber. Murray must be smart with his serve and play for the first ball rather than trying to hit an ace or service winner outright.

3) Attacking The Fed Forehand

Federer’s forehand is a weapon of epic proportions. Outside of serves, it is probably the most dangerous shot in the history of tennis. It is therefore understandable that most players try very hard not to let Federer hit forehands, and instead direct their play at his weaker backhand side. The problem is that Federer has been dealing with people trying to do that for a long time now and he has developed a plethora of strategies to handle it. He moves well to his right, and so is quite happy to recover to well left of the center line, squeezing the cross-court reply and almost daring his opponents to try to go down the line. Murray needs to call his bluff. For all the skill Federer has on his forehand wing, attacking into his forehand is one of the only ways to truly open up the court against him. There is this idea I use when coaching my doubles teams which is to attack the opposing net player off the ground. Rather than wait and let them hit the volley they¬†choose to hit, make that decision for them and have them play the volley on your terms. This is the same idea. If you let Federer decide were and when he’s hitting forehands he will hurt you. Go after that space he leaves open first and have him play forehands on your terms and the dynamic changes. This opens up the backhand corner and takes the initiative away from Roger.

4) The Cross-Court Backhand Battle

Federer will look to establish himself in the cross-court backhand rallies early. Given point #3, it is critical to him that he inhibit Murray’s ability to take his backhand down the line aggressively, and hitting his cross-court backhand well is his best chance of doing that. If Federer can hit one cross-court well enough to get a slightly central reply, then that opens up the chance for him to run around and hit either the inside-out or inside-in forehand. So watch these exchanges – Murray should be quite happy to sustain the cross-court rally and hit backhands, waiting for the slightly shorter ball he can take down the line. If Federer’s backhand feels good he’ll stay in this pattern. If it doesn’t, he’ll be forced to create forehands for himself, which can catch him out of position. Whoever gets the better of these exchanges is a huge step closer to winning the match.

5) Murray’s Aggression Level

Of all the facets listed above, this may be the most important. Murray has evolved his game over the last few years to be more aggressive and take control of matches. He is still, at heart, a counter-puncher and when the pressure hits his natural instinct is to play passively. Clearly against Federer on the big stage this isn’t sustainable unless Federer has a bad day and I wouldn’t anticipate that happening. Murray should take heart from his win at the Olympics, but in the back of his mind the physically draining semi-final Federer played has to be lingering. Does he truly believe he can defeat a physically fit Federer on the big stage? We’ll know for sure by this time tomorrow!

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