Andy Murray d. Rafael Nadal 3-6 6-2 6-0.
Nadal and Murray match-ups are a showcase for superb rallies with edge-of-your-seat points, and this match was no exception. The first set was very closely fought and Nadal took advantage of Murray’s service wobbles early on in the first set. Although Muzz struggled with his first serves early on in the match, he was clearly gaining momentum and finding his rhythm as the first set progressed. Rafa held on to take the first set, courtesy of his excellent shotmaking and his ability to stay focused during the long rallies.
Muzz broke Rafa’s serve early on in the 2nd set. He then consolidated after initially going 0-40 down. That game alone lasted nearly ten minutes and Rafa had one or two clear chances he wasn’t able to capitalize on to break back. The disappointment of not breaking may have contributed to his drop in level. That’s when Muzz stepped up his own level and really took command of the match. He was zoning and hitting beautifully angled shots while winning impressive points at the net.
This momentum shift unsettled Rafa, who then resorted to moonballs in the middle of rallies and poor shot selection (feeding the ball straight to Muzz instead of hitting into the open court) on several critical points. More concerning was Rafa’s body language. In contrast to his strong presence early in the match, his shoulders slumped midway through the 2nd set and he was playing like someone who knew defeat was inevitable. Much credit is due to Muzz’s play, as this match saw Rafa being severely punished for failing to break back immediately when he had the chance. That was the critical turning point where Murray emerged the victor. Who knows whether the outcome of the final hinged on Murray’s service game at 3-1 (0-40) in the 2nd set?
Rafa has lost matches against Djokovic in similar fashion and I wonder if Rafa now has a tougher time against defensive opponents. Federer and Nadal are a dichotomy: Fed is the paragon of offensive shotmaking while Nadal shows the finer attributes of explosive but primarily defensive tennis. Against Federer, Nadal is able to use his top-spin to attack Fed’s backhand. This approach works against the majority of players on tour as well.
However, Rafa’s constant hitting to Murray’s backhand clearly worked against him today. At this year’s Rome final, I was hopeful for Rafa’s chances against Djokovic until I saw him use moonballs to break up rallies. That’s when I sensed he was either running out of ideas or lacking the confidence to break his opponent’s rhythm. Today’s match against Murray reminded me of that final in Rome. Muzz’s retrieving skills and smartly angled shots seemed to wear down Rafa and push his unforced error count up.
It’s surprising how quickly Rafa fell away in this match and that’s why I bring up the defense vs. offense dynamic. I can’t recall a truly terrible match Rafa has played against an offense-based player, whereas Rafa has had some poor showings against defensive players like Murray and Djokovic this year. Even Rafa’s loss at the 2009 USO SF, where he lost 6-2 6-2 6-2 to Del Potro, was hardly the one-sided contest that the scoreline suggests. Whereas today’s 3-6 6-2 6-0 scoreline sums it all up for the Tokyo final.
Although this is a disappointing loss, Tokyo is a 500-level tournament at the end of the day. Just as Muzz fans sit agape at the TV screen wondering why their man couldn’t perform similarly at a Grand Slam, Rafa fans can take small but still-present comfort in the fact that he’s a more-than-proven performer on the big stage. In a bit of reverse logic, Murray’s defeat of Nadal today also shows that one can beat an opponent after losing to him 5 times in a row (before today, the last time Muzz defeated Nadal was 2010 Toronto SF). All in all, this was a sweet trip to Tokyo for the Murray clan, as Andy then went on to win the doubles final with his brother Jamie.