January 28, 2011 -- Andy Murray advanced to his third grand slam final Friday and he won't have to play Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. It will mark the first time in six years that a grand slam final doesn't include one of these two formidable opponents.
Murray defeated the #7 seed David Ferrer, a player that seems to fall through the cracks when speaking about the best. He is small in stature -- 5' 9" -- but huge in heart, fitness and determination. He is the mirror image of Caroline Wozniacki on the ATP Tour.
"The guy is ranked 7 in the world," Murray began. "After this week he'll probably be higher. I have a lot of respect for him. The guy's in unbelievable shape. And, yeah, he pushed me. It was an incredibly difficult match."
Both players expected a demanding encounter. Both are counter punchers. Combine that style of tennis with the medium speed of the court and the conditions that prevail at night, and you have a recipe for lengthy rallies and possessive endurance. Who would crack first? Who would, amidst the physicality, use all their abilities to the fullest extent possible?
At the beginning of the match, Murray lagged. He seemed lost, out of rhythm. His serve wasn't sharp. Without that firing on all cylinders, Murray would wander.
Ferrer broke Murray three times by the time the Spaniard won the first set, 6-4, and two games were played in the second. The results seemed wrong. Ferrer can wear down opponents the way Wozniacki wears down opponents -- until their defense has been infiltrated... until the wall cracks, which happened in the second set for Murray. His serve perked up and he swung into his game.
But that didn't stop Ferrer. Murray might be a half-foot taller, possess bigger shots especially the serve. But he carried intrinsic burdens to prove himself plus higher expectations from all constituents. Before the second set was out, Murray was muttering to himself and his box. He was anxious and personally embarrassed about his performance.
Had Murray not won the second set tiebreak, Ferrer mighta have run away with the match and Murray would have been pummeled by the press.
"I started playing closer to the baseline, taking away his time," Murray explained. "I started slicing up the line, changing the passing of the points. I was able to dictate a little bit more. Just went for my shots a bit more. I came to the net a bit."
Watching these two extend rallies to over 30 shots seemed to wear out fans. There was a real sense of awe. Murray and Ferrer covered every square inch of the court and double the width. One of them would certainly have to call for a trainer, for aspirin, or a courtside massage.
They roped the ball crosscourt and down the line, each man hanging in the point, neither willing to give up, neither conscious of their effort... just scramble, split step, swing. They went crosscourt hundreds of times, backhands and forehands, over the ball and under it, Ferrer's interminable grunt echoing in the cavernous arena seconds after contacting the ball. Then a switch up, more severe angles that dragged them so far wide they vanished from the camera's eye. But, wait, here he comes, scrambling, shuffling, digging, sprinting to the net for a drop shot. Murray hit a down-the-line running forehand after an arduous rally. Fans fans jumped to their feet, craning their necks... it was a winner.
It went on and on. But no matter how big Murray's tennis, and no matter how big his Scottish frame, Ferrer continued to be a scrapper just like Wozniacki. He wouldn't beat himself. He would, though, drag you into his web and force his will on you. Ferrer is a brilliant and persistent man.
Murray found his way out of the Ferrer web in the third set, breaking three times and closing it at 6-1. With this much momentum the fourth would be routine. Unless he stumbled, got too cocky, or forgot what his opponent was capable of.
Leave it to Murray to back off the gas and digress. The scent of his wayward trail began in the third as he tried to close it. Mats Wilander described the last game as a 'mini match.' Murray got the job done, but Ferrer's persistence in drawing out points and whipping Murray from corner to corner could have proven fatal for him, and a big boost for Ferrer. The format is best-of-five sets. Take it to five and bets would weigh heavily on Ferrer to win.
"I played very consistent the entire match," Ferrer said. "I run a lot. Some points, no, was the key. Maybe I had my chance in the last games of the fourth, but he serve good. In the tiebreak, the two times, I start really bad."
'Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.' Mohamed Ali's self portrait aptly applies to David Ferrer. He buzzed. Murray's job, which he narrowly accomplished, was to extricate himself from the hive and channel his energy toward heavier shots, shorter points, and consistently good serves.
"Pretty physical match," Murray told Jim Courier on court immediately following his 46 76 (2) 61 76(2) victory.
And about no Rafa or Roger in the final?
"Those two have been great for the sport, and I'm sure they'll continue to be for however long they're both playing. But from a personal point of view, I would rather be in the final than be watching them at home."