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.
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.