Playing the Percentages: Two Key Points to the Murray Djokovic US Open Final

The Mens 2012 US Open Final: Andy Murray vs Novak Djokovic

Murray’s first serve will be crucial

With Rafael Nadal pulling out through injury and Roger Federer knocked out in the Quarter Finals, it was always likely that the US Open final would feature Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. Despite the latter being the reigning US Open champion and leading the head to head with Murray 8-6, all signs point to this match being an even, carefully balanced contest, which will be decided by a few key points.

The similarities between the two players are striking: born within a week of each other, they entered the top 100 together and reached the top 10 at roughly the same time. Both have won numerous Masters Series finals, made Grand Slam finals and generally done the most of any players on tour to disrupt the hegemony of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer at the top of the game.  Djokovic has five Grand Slam titles to his name, whereas Murray has four defeats in finals, picking up a lone set in an otherwise series of forgettable performances.

However, Murray has had a superb 2012, and has shown that he doesn’t fear Djokovic in the same way he did Roger Federer, when he seemed overwhelmed by the stature of the Swiss great in the 2008 US Open and 2010 Australian Open Final. Murray should come out with plenty of belief, and there is a real chance of a classic final along the lines of their Australian Open encounter eight months ago, which finished 7-5 Djokovic in the fifth set. Here are two crucial factors which will decide tonight’s tie:

1. The First Serve % and the Return

Serve and return should be dealt with together as one entity when discussing a match up between players who return far better than they do serve.

In basic terms, Murray can hit his first serve considerably faster than Djokovic, but to the detriment of an poor first serve percentage. This is exacerbated by a weak second serve delivery, which opens the door for his opponents  to tee off on the return and put holes in Murray’s service games – and no one is better than Djokovic (at least since the retirement of Andre Agassi and the decline of Davydenko and Nalbandian) at hitting clean winners off opponent’s first serves.

If Muray serves well he will be able to keep Djokovic out of the majority of his service games (accounting for the occasional 130MPH down-the-T serve which Djokovic will invariably return back into the corner with added velocity). To do so, he will need to strike a fine balance between maintaining a healthy 60%+ first serve percentage without neutering the power of his serve. Murray serves best on the ad court, where he can get enormous pace on the out wide flat serve. It is on the deuce side where he struggles more; his slice serve is not one of the best, and his down-the-T serve can be inconsistent.

Djokovic on the other hand, doesn’t have quite the same ability to serve through Murray. He will probably be best off contuining his high first serve percentage strategy; rather than trying to ace the best returner in the game, he will hope to hit the corners of the service box and eleicit weak responses from Murray, which will be enough to put him on the front foot in the ensuing rally.

There is merit in the strategy of a high first serve percentage when playing Murray: no one in the game is better than the Scot at clawing back huge serves, and he is extremely difficult to ace. Djokovic therefore might be better off going for higher percentages on his first serve.

Djokovic has the superior 2nd serve but this is negated  by both mens outstanding returns. Getting the balance is key for both men. Murray will have to mix up his slice and T serve on the deuce court well enough to keep Djokovic guessing. Likewise, Novak may have to go for more on his first serves to ensure a few free points.

2. The forehand

Djokovic has fantastic rotation on his forehand, and generates considerably more topspin than Murray. This is partially aided by Djokovic having a more extreme grip. In theory Murray, with his more conservative semi-western grip, should find it easier to unleash flat forehand drives. However, he rarely opts to, and his forehand is certainly a weaker rallying shot compared to Djokovic’s.

Djokovic has a decided advantage in hitting the forehand from the ad court; while Murray has improved in this aspect, Djokovic has a superb inside out forehand, and his grip and motion seem more suited to hitting heavy inside out forehands. One area in which Murray has closed the gap is in the ‘inside-in’ forehand; previously he has been guilty of running around his backhand to hit a forehand up the line, not getting enough depth or pace on the shot, and leaving himself exposed cross court. With increased confidence on the forehand wing, he seems to have remedied this, hitting the shot with more conviction and power.

This match represents more of a challenge to Murray than his opponent; Djokovic will know that a repeat of his previous hard court Grand Slam performances against Murray will probably get the job done. For the Scot, he will have to serve smartly and well, and ensure that he hits his forehand with conviction.

– TN

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