Category Archives: Andy Murray

A Quarterfinal on Federer’s Racquet

The Roger Federer-Andy Murray head-to-head is a bit of a baffling one. In twenty career meetings–18 of them on hard courts–Murray has won 11, including four of the last five.

Yet for a superficially tight one-on-one record, Fed and Murray haven’t played many tight matches against each other, especially lately. When they went five sets in last year’s Australian Open semifinal, it was the first time they had gone the distance in ten matches. The outcome of a match between them is up for grabs, but whoever wins it tends to do so by a handy margin.

Even that five-set semifinal last year wasn’t as close as it looked. Murray won 54.0% of total points and racked up a Dominance Ratio (DR) of 1.32, meaning that he won far more return points than Roger did. Five setters are usually much closer to 50% and 1.0, respectively. While Murray won far more points, Federer displayed his historically-great tiebreak skill to keep himself in the match.

DR is a convenient measure of the closeness of a match, where 1.0 is a dead heat. Only two Fed-Murray matches–both before 2009–fell in the range between 0.85 and 1.15. By contrast, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have played seven matches (including two Grand Slam finals) in that range, and Djokovic and Murray have played five.

Tactical nonsense

To traffic in conventional wisdom for a moment, Federer is the most aggressive of the Big Four, while Murray is the most passive. To the extent Andy is likely to hurt Roger, it has more to do with his ability to force Fed into trying to do too much, particularly on the backhand side. If Federer plays patiently and picks his spots, he can crush Murray. If he plays too passively or hits bunches of unforced errors, it can be a rough day at the office.

However, there may not be much Murray can do to determine which Roger shows up.  Simply forcing Fed to hit backhands certainly isn’t enough. The Match Charting Project has amassed shot-by-shot data, including the number of groundstrokes hit from either side, for 23 Federer matches so far. Nadal is particularly good at directing the ball to Federer’s backhand, forcing Roger to hit 56% to 58% of groundstrokes from the backhand side in both a win (last year’s World Tour Finals) and a bad loss (the 2011 Tour Finals).

Taking the average of these 23 matches (most of which are Federer wins, as the Match Charting Project seems to have drawn lots of Fed fans), Roger hits 52.5% of his groundstrokes from the forehand side. This reflects the balance of two factors: Federer wanting to hit his forehand, and opponents trying to keep the ball away from it.

Surprisingly, hitting lots of balls to Fed’s backhand side seems to have few benefits. There is no meaningful correlation between DR and the percentage of groundstrokes Fed hit on the backhand side.

Based on the limited data available, it appears that Murray has tried a variety of tactics.

In the two Fed-Murray matches for which we have shot-by-shot data–the 2010 Australian Open final and the 2012 Dubai final–Murray took opposite approaches to the problem. In the Melbourne final, he managed to direct 57% of balls to Fed’s backhand, which is as good as anyone but Nadal has managed. In the Dubai match, Roger hit 64% of his groundstrokes from the forehand side, the second-highest rate of any of the 23 Federer matches in the database.

In both cases, Murray lost. To take another example, Juan Martin del Potro has beaten Fed while letting him hit 57% forehands and lost to him while forcing him to hit 57% backhands.

The database–limited in matches and biased as it is toward Fed’s victories–probably can’t take us any farther. But from here, we can speculate that Federer has it in his power to win or lose regardless of the tactics thrown his way. Murray, like Nadal, has always forced him to hit one extra ball. The sort of aggression that takes a player far out of position to hit, for instance, an inside-out forehand can backfire against such a talented defensive player.

In four matches at the Australian Open so far, Federer has offered us plenty of glimpses of his glory days. Murray will likely prove to be his biggest test of the tournament, but Fed’s fate still hangs on his own racquet.

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Filed under Andy Murray, Australian Open, Match charting, Roger Federer

Wawrinka d. Murray: Recap and Detailed Stats

The narrative felt familiar.  A flashy player from the fringes of the top ten takes on an established top-five guy, a great defender who would be sure to outlast his opponent in the end.

Yesterday, it was Gasquet and Ferrer.  Today, Stanislas Wawrinka and Andy Murray.  Even after Wawrinka took the first set, the same talking points reappeared: Surely Wawrinka would press, or tire, or Murray would wake up and play better tennis.  Fortunately for Stan, he didn’t have to fight off as spirited a comeback as Gasquet did; he simply kept employing the same successful strategies while Murray, passive and error-ridden, let him run away with the match.

While Murray’s impotence will be the story of this match–he hit only 15 winners in the entire match, and that includes six aces–much must be said about Wawrinka’s game plan.

The Swiss is known for his backhand, but unlike Gasquet, he doesn’t unduly favor it.  Roughly 40% of his groundstrokes are backhands (including slices), meaning he is willing to move around it and attack with the forehand.  The Wawrinka forehand is a weapon that is known to break down, but when it’s working, it can be just as deadly as the backhand.  It didn’t falter today: Stan earned 27 winners and induced five additional forced errors with shots from that side.

But the forehand was only a complementary part of the attack.  What continued to surprise throughout the match was Wawrinka’s willingness–sometimes over-eagerness–to come to net.  His transition game is a little awkward, and many of his errors came from failed approach shots, but by continually putting more pressure on Murray, he closed out points when Andy would’ve been content to let them go on for ten more shots.

Another underrated part of Wawrinka’s game is the serve.  While Stan will never post eye-popping ace numbers, it’s an effective shot that sets up the rest of his game well.  Today, he only tallied four aces and one unreturnable, but of 76 total serve points, Wawrinka won 29 of them with or before his second shot.  That isn’t as foolproof as an Isner-like ace tally, but the end result is the same.

And sure enough, it prevented Murray from even sniffing opportunity.  Murray didn’t earn a single break point in the match, the first time he has failed to generate one since his loss to Roger Federer in the 2010 World Tour Finals.

Wawrinka, on the other hand, pushed Murray to 30-30 in almost every one of his service games, and after suffering through a marathon game at the end of the first set, in which he needed seven opportunities to seal the break and the set, he didn’t waste nearly so much time again.  The Swiss converted three of five break point opportunities after that first set.

It was a bad day for Murray, that’s for sure.  It represented a step back to before his days as an Olympic and Grand Slam champion, and it may be a tough one to bounce back from.  Wawrinka, on the other hand, forces us to consider him as one of the “next four,” perhaps the Swiss #1 sooner rather than later.  He won’t always beat Murray with today’s game plan, but he’ll do more damage against higher-ranked players.

In Saturday’s semifinal against Djokovic? That’ll be a big ask, even playing the way he did today.  Novak has reeled off eleven victories in a row in their head-to-head, though their last match was the marathon fourth-rounder in Australia, when Stan pushed him to 12-10 in the fifth set.  The semi won’t have the star power it would’ve with Murray, but we can expect some great tennis.

Here are my detailed serve, return, and shot-type stats for today’s match.

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Filed under Andy Murray, Match charting, Stanislas Wawrinka, U.S. Open

Murray d. Istomin: Recap and Detailed Stats

Tonight Andy Murray defeated Denis Istomin in four sets for a place in the quarterfinals against Stanislas Wawrinka. I logged every point, and have lots of stats for you to check out.

In particular, check out the new “key points” and “rally length” tables.

Murray started out sluggishly and never appeared to play at 100%. But what he brought was good enough, especially in the second set, when Istomin went down an early break and immediately started looking to the third set.

Istomin has a big game, with the ability to dictate play from the baseline. Murray spent a lot of time in classic Andy defense mode, and often it worked, as perhaps Istomin’s greatest weakness is his predilection for low-percentage shots. His 58 unforced errors (not counting double faults) don’t even convey the whole story, as so many of those should have been simple rallying shots.  It may not be easy to construct a point against a defender like Murray, but Istomin’s tactics didn’t do him much credit.

While Murray came through tonight, it marks another sign of weakness for defending champ. Playing like he did tonight won’t be enough to beat Wawrinka, let alone Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. His serve never really got going, and once he learned he could trust Istomin to lose points without too much help, he waited out his opponent. It worked, but it took over three hours. Andy in champion mode should have won this one in less than two.

Here are the complete chart-based stats.

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Filed under Andy Murray, Denis Istomin, Match charting

Djokovic the Favorite, Murray the Vulnerable, Smyczek the Last Hope?

Last night, Novak Djokovic cemented his status as the US Open favorite, all without doing a thing.

The 32-man draw has 19 seeds left, but only two others remain in Novak’s quarter, and those two–Tommy Haas and Mikhail Youzhny–play each other in the 3rd round.  Djokovic will face the shocking Joao Sousa in his third-rounder, followed by the winner of Tim Smyczek-Marcel Granollers in the fourth.

Novak’s quarterfinal threat was supposed to be Juan Martin del Potro, and that’s where the Serbian has really gained.  Lleyton Hewitt upset Delpo in a slipshod five-setter last night, making Djokovic’s most likely QF opponent Tommy Haas. While Haas has a recent win against the world #1, you have to figure he remains the preferred opponent.

These shifts in the draw mean that my forecast now gives Djokovic almost exactly double the chances of winning of his nearest competitor, Rafael Nadal.  Nadal, of course, has a much trickier path to the semifinals, likely having to go through both John Isner and Roger Federer.  Andy Murray has a more fortunate draw than that, but he’ll probably need to beat Tomas Berdych to earn a matchup with Djokovic.

Djokovic didn’t look dominant in his second-round win, but it was Murray who lost a set yesterday, to journeyman Argentine Leonardo Mayer, a 26-year-old who has yet to crack the top 50.  The defending champion recovered just fine, but is second-round weakness a sign of bad things to come?

The short answer is no.  Since 1991, seven US Open champions have been pushed to four or five sets in their second round match en route to the title, though none have suffered that fate since 2004, when eventual champ Federer dropped a set to Marcos Baghdatis.  Another three titlists lost at least one set in the first round.

However, few of those early-round challengers have been as anonymous as Mayer.  Besides Baghdatis, the most recent second-round threats have been Ivan Ljubicic and James Blake.  The last time an Open champion dropped a second-round set to such an anonymous figure was in 2000, when Marat Safin needed five sets to get past Gianluca Pozzi.

Also worth noting is that in Murray’s trio of notable victories–last year’s Olympics and US Open, plus this year’s Wimbledon–he has never dropped a set so early.  In fact, in London this summer, he won his first four matches in straights before battling through a five-setter against Fernando Verdasco.

Whatever else you might say about Verdasco, he’s a much more dangerous opponent than Leonardo Mayer.

American grinder Tim Smyczek scored the biggest win of his career yesterday with a five-set victory over Alex Bogomolov.  Smyczek has taken advantage of an easy draw (Bogie defeated Benoit Paire in the first round) to reach his first Grand Slam round of 32 in his fifth main draw appearance.

He has a rare opportunity to go even further, facing 43rd-ranked Marcel Granollers, also the beneficiary of a friendly draw thanks to Fabio Fognini‘s first-round loss.  Granollers has played 18 slams on hard and grass courts, never reaching the round of 16.

It’s a strange world when Smyczek is one of only three Americans–along with John Isner and Jack Sock–still alive.  Stranger still is the very real possibility that Tim will be the only man standing two days from now.  Sock faces Janko Tipsarevic, a winnable match but not one he’ll be favored in.  Isner is ranked higher than his next opponent, Philipp Kohlschreiber, but the German eliminated him in last year’s Open.

Smyczek, on the other hand, has nothing to lose.  Well, except for his pride, when he reaches the fourth round and suffers a triple-bagel at the hands of Novak Djokovic.

If you’re already worrying about not having enough matches to watch during week two, look no further than Colette Lewis’s thorough US Open Juniors preview, which lays out the contenders in both the boys’ and girls’ draw.

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Filed under Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Tim Smyczek

Another Early Exit for Andy Murray

Last night, disaster befell Andy Murray again.  The only good thing you can say about his straight-set loss to 92nd-ranked Guillermo Garcia-Lopez is that it wasn’t quite the embarrassment of his losses to Donald Young and Alex Bogomolov one year ago.  Once again, it raises questions about whether Murray really belongs in the conversation with the rest of the big four.  After all, except for the odd disappointment from semi-injured Rafa, the other three guys aren’t losing in any first or second rounds.

Federer hasn’t lost to anyone outside the top 50 since Indian Wells in 2008, and that was to a comeback-trail Mardy Fish.  Nadal has been perfect against the top 50 since his own (probably injured) loss to Gigi in 2010–before that, you have to go back to Queen’s Club 2007.  Djokovic’s undefeated streak against the top 50 goes back to Queen’s Club 2010.

While it’s disappointing that Murray followed up such an impressive performance in Dubai with such a dud, let’s consider this in context.  Even counting Indian Wells last year, yesterday’s match was only Murray’s fifth loss to a player outside the top 20 (and third outside the top 50) since the beginning of 2011.  (He also lost to Thomaz Bellucci in Madrid and Kevin Anderson in Canada.)  Sure, this is the rung below Rafa/Roger/Novak, but the current level of top three-or-four dominance has raised the bar beyond any realistic expectations.

And perhaps most importantly, do these early exits really matter?  In the locker room, maybe, but what about in the rankings?  Murray trails Federer by 1,260 points.  If Andy had reached the semis in both Indian Wells and Miami last year (and remember, simply playing up to one’s seed can’t reasonably be expected), he would have 670 more points, barely cutting that lead in half.  Count the early exit at the Canada Masters as well and assume that he reached the semifinal there as well–still only 1005 additional points, and not enough to catch Federer.  (Though he would’ve held the #3 ranking before Fed’s win in Dubai.)

These counterfactuals are reminders that, given the current level of competition, it’s the big matches that really matter.  Winning a grand slam semifinal is worth almost as much as reaching the semis of two Masters events.  If Murray is to displace one of the top three, he’s much more likely to do so by winning a slam (or at least reaching more finals) than by simply playing up to his seed everywhere else.

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Filed under Andy Murray, Indian Wells