Matching up Murray Against Federer: Who Has the Edge?

By Yeshayahu Ginsburg

Andy Murray is one of the two current players on tour that have a winning record against Roger Federer. The other, obviously, is Rafael Nadal. Murray and Nadal do not play similar styles, but they do have something in common. They are both, at their very essence, counterpunchers. Yes, they have a drastically different way of doing things. But their basic goal in every rally is the same—play frustratingly solid defense until an opening to attack presents itself, then take it. The incredible defense that each of them plays is what troubles Federer the most. He is used to controlling rallies with his precise and strong groundstrokes. Murray and Nadal (and Djokovic) are some of the only players on tour who really take that ability away from him, which changes the entire tone of matches that Federer is involved in.

It is precisely this reason that I worry about Andy Murray’s apparent change of strategy this tournament. Murray has looked more aggressive in the first few rounds of this tournament than he usually does. He used to emphasize the counter in counterpunch. Now his main goal seems to be the punching. It is working for him beautifully. Even without his serve being so great this tournament, he is still winning a good deal more points than his opponents. Granted, he has not yet met a top-tier player, but his aggressive tennis has been suiting him very well this tournament.

Unfortunately, I fear that this aggressive tennis just will not go over so well against. Federer. Murray does not have the raw power to outhit Federer from the baseline like Tsonga did for much of his match against Federer. Murray will not be the one who comes out ahead in aggressive exchanges. He just won’t. Murray is a tremendous precision player who hits the ball cleanly. But Federer does those things better than Murray does. Murray deals with adverse conditions better than Roger, so maybe the heat or some wind would help the Scot, but in a perfect match Federer will come out ahead more often than not in even exchanges.

Which is why, for this match at least, Murray really needs to go back to what has worked for him against Federer in the past. And while it’s true that Murray has never beaten Roger in a Slam, I don’t think the losses can be attributed to the differences between best-of-5 and best-of-3. Federer was just better than Murray in each of those matches. Murray’s counterpunching still bothered Federer even then.

I’m not saying that Murray doesn’t have a chance if he plays aggressively. He still is a great player and is incredibly difficult for anyone to beat. But he does have certain advantages over Federer usually. There is a reason he is 10-9 against Federer when very few other players ever get close to even, let alone above it. The attacking that he has been doing so far this tournament would probably negate some of those advantages, in my opinion.

Of course, the one thing that really beat Murray in his previous matches against Federer at Slams was nerves. Murray just didn’t really show up mentally to the 2008 US Open final or the 2010 Australian Open final. He was beaten off the court very quickly and really never played his best game. Last year’s Wimbledon final was a little different. The nerves weren’t as obvious there, but Murray could not capitalize on any of his opportunities late in crunch time. He had 30-30 on Federer’s serve several times in the final few sets and actually got a look at the serves. He never could generate the break points that he needed though.

It is not at all unfair to assume that trouncing Federer in the Olympic final and winning the US Open final has cured any issues that Murray has with showing up mentally in these big matches. But you never know. It could be that facing Federer in a Slam will still weigh heavily on his mind because he has never beaten Roger in one of these tournaments. What we do know for sure, though, is that if Murray comes out nervous, he doesn’t really have a chance in this match, no matter how aggressively or defensively he playys.