February 19, 2013
After a stroll in Melbourne Park – which pretty much sums up Andy Murray’s Aussie Open so far – the Scotsman is going to come up against a brick wall named Roger Federer at the semi-final stage.
And I for one tip Federer to win that showdown and set up an epic final against Novak Djokovic.
The problem is that Murray hasn’t had a decent match so far – (I’m writing before Andy’s quarter-final with Jeremy Chardy) – and suddenly he is supposed to be ready to take down the greatest player the world has ever seen.
Back in England, tennis pundit and former tour player Andrew Castle saw Murray’s ridiculously easy progress so far as a positive. The argument goes that Murray can save all his energy for the last four stage, when he’ll really need it.
Castle said on BBC Radio Five Live back in England: ‘If Murray wants a tough half-an-hour, he can go out and practise with his coach, Ivan Lendl.’
With all due respect to Castle, a former British number one, there is only one response to that: ‘You cannot be serious.’ You only have to listen to Murray to know that he is in a strange place mentally…somewhere he doesn’t really want to be.
After his simple steam-rollering of Gilles Simon in barely an hour-and-a-half, Murray talked about not feeling competitive, yet at the same time wanting to finish the match quickly. He talked about it being a hard situation.
Remember, Murray didn’t pull up any trees in Sydney and now he feels the Aussie Open has almost passed him by before he faces a serious test.
Suddenly Federer will stand in his way, a man in awesome form. First the Fed taught Aussie hero Bernard Tomic a tennis lesson in a high-intensity contest – which I believe will do the promising Tomic a power of good in the long run as a reality check.
Then Roger tamed Milos Raonic, a man who chalked up a serve of 144.8mph in Melbourne, one of his 89 aces in the tournament.
Remarkably, Federer isn’t expending too much energy either – but he is being properly tested as he builds towards the business end of the tournament. Murray? He has barely broken sweat. And when you listen to him, you realise how desperately he did want to break sweat before facing Federer.
It could be that daytime British TV favourite Andrew Castle is proved to be right. It may turn out that the sniff of another Grand Slam title – and the chance to become the first virgin Slam winner to follow up immediately with a second Slam – is all the incentive Murray needs when it comes to Federer.
And it is undeniably true that Andy will have plenty of fuel still in the tank. But it may also be that he enters that ultimate sporting war without so much as a warm-up skirmish, and finds himself blasted out of it before he has time to load his most lethal ammunition.
It’s going to be fascinating to see how it turns out. Federer v Murray, if it comes to pass, will be the ultimate test of the theory that you can have no tough tests in the eaerly rounds of a tournament, yet still be mentally ready for a demanding semi-final. Murray isn’t talking like a man mentally ready.
Federer, on the other hand, has seen it all, he is hungry for the glory he knows his body will no longer be able to guarantee him in a year’s time, and above all he has been sharpened by serious sporting combat in Melbourne. The next question will be this: can the winner of a Federer v Murray semi-final beat Novak Djokovic in the final?
That’s assuming the Serb recovers sufficiently from his five-set marathon against Stanislas Wawrinka to reach the showpiece.
Federer v Murray is likely to be a tougher semi-final than anything Djokovic might have to face at that stage. So if super-fit Novak can get that far, he should have recovered sufficiently by then to feel physically fresher, ready to let his class and warrior spirit shine through in the final.
That’s why I’m still tipping Djokovic to take the crown, perhaps in another epic five-setter against Federer.
But none of us has a crystal ball. There will be a few twists and turns in the unseen plot before then. One thing is certain: this Aussie Open, with its sweltering heat and uneven draw, has thrown up some intriguing psychological and physical tests already.
It’s going to be totally absorbing to watch how the world’s greatest players cope with them.
Poor Caroline…On the way down at 22
You have to feel sorry for the former world number one Caroline Wozniacki – past the peak of her career at the tender age of 22. Her defeat to the bruising Russian, Svetlana Kuznetsova in Melbourne only underlined Caroline’s problem.
Wozniacki didn’t play badly at all – but she still lost to a resurgent Kuznetsova, who was on crutches not so long ago with knee problems after more than a decade on tour. I don’t think you can blame Caroline’s high-profile relationship with top golfer Rory McIlroy for her demise.
They are two very natural young people doing what comes naturally and I’m not convinced they are anything but good for each other, despite the added pressure of the media glare.
No, Caroline’s problem is that she simply isn’t good enough to be world number one ever again – and I suspect she knows it deep down. This isn’t an attack, in fact it pains me to say it, having met Caroline and liked her down-to-earth, bubbly personality.
There was a moment against Kuznetsova when Caroline put a shot into the net and threw her raqcuet down in disgust. Sheer frustration was behind her antics. It can’t be much fun being bludgeoned by Svetlana’s forehand – one of the most powerful, natural weapons ever seen on the circuit.
But Caroline is a big, powerful girl and shouldn’t really find herself outgunned in this way.
More worrying, Svetlana out-thought her, tested her mobility with some subtle drop-shots, exposed the Dane’s limitations.
Wozniacki needs some serious coaching if she is to improve – as she must to keep up with the best – yet she seems to turn back to her father, Piotr every time she has a problem with any coach.
Is the quality and intensity really there to give us hope that Wozniacki can challenge the giants of the game? Even at her peak she never won a Slam – and it probably isn’t going to happen now.
When you look at the way Victoria Azarenka, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova have outgunned opponents in Melbourne, you have to wonder whether Wozniacki will ever reach the very summit of world tennis again as a single’s player.
It may be that Caroline has to accept that some sportswomen – swimmers and gymnasts among them – really do peak so early that their later twenties are already a swansong.
Staying in the top ten is no mean feat in itself, and Wozniacki is capable of that if she knuckles down and seeks fresh coaching help. She can always tell her children and grandchildren that she really did become world number one for an extraordinary period in her life – due to sheer hard work.
People should continue to admire her for that. And I for one hope she finds a realistic target that will continue to stimulate her career path within the game.
by Mark Ryan (part of the Mail on Sunday‘s Wimbledon reporting team)