When the sixth game of the third set in the Wimbledon men's singles final this past weekend neared the 20-minute mark - after ten deuce points and twelve game points split evenly between the two players - I found myself thinking back to the famous 1980 fourth set tiebreak between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe.
The 1980 Borg-McEnroe Tiebreak
Ultimately, the Murray-Federer game may not have quite reached the dramatic heights of the Borg-McEnroe encounter. But it came close, even though only one player was doing all the serving and the predominantly pro-Murray crowd in the stands around Centre Court wasn't on its feet throughout the final points, as had been the case in the see-saw tiebreak of 1980. It was the middle of the third set, after all, whereas the championship was hanging in the balance for Borg during that 1980 tiebreak - and a loss loomed for McEnroe if he didn't win it. What many people tend to forget, peering back through the mists of 32 years, is that even after McEnroe won the breaker 18-16 Borg managed to pull himself together, improve his serving, and play better overall than he had the entire match to win the fifth set, giving him a then-record setting fifth consecutive Wimbledon singles title.
At just over 20 minutes, the 26-point Federer-Murray game took almost as long as the 34-point Borg-McEnroe tiebreak, which lasted 22 minutes. The result was a critical break of serve for Federer on his sixth break point of the game (half of the 12 break points he reached during the entire match). The big difference between the two matches was that, unlike Borg, Murray never recovered from the break. Buoyed with confidence, Federer raised the level of his game, holding serve the rest of the way, and closing out the match in four sets, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3,6-4.
The Game of the Tournament
Game six of the third set began with Murray serving to even things at 3-3 after he and Federer had split the first two sets of a very well-played, high-quality match. In the first two sets, winners outnumbered unforced errors by margins of +15 in Murray's case and +6 in Federer's.
A rain delay interrupted play at 2-1 after Federer had held serve a second time in the third set, and the Wimbledon roof was closed. After play resumed, things seemed to pick up where the players had left off before the delay. Murray held serve, and Federer held again for 3-2. When Murray won the first three points of the sixth game, he appeared to be, at 40-love, on the way to another routine hold.
Then things began to change as three game points, beginning with a brilliant Federer backhand cross-court winner, were ripped away, then slipped away.
Federer forced a Murray forehand wide at 40-15, and at 40-30 drew Murray in toward the net at full speed on a good drop shot to his forehand side. Murray's left foot slipped and he lost his footing as he reached for the ball, falling hard on his left side, and losing the point. Tellingly, it was the first of three hard spills Murray took in the game trying to track down tough shots by Federer. On the subsequent point, at deuce, Murray recovered enough to deliver a first-serve winner to Federer's forehand, but on the next point, a 16-shot rally, Murray made an uncharacteristic unforced backhand error. Back to deuce. The game of the match was on.
The Key Differences: Murray's Serve, Federer's Return
Several interesting patterns are evident in the game in retrospect. For starters, of the 26 points that Murray served in the game, he was able to manage only 10 first serves in, a 38% rate, miserably below even his 56% rate for the match and his 60% rate for the year. (This figure ranks Murray 42nd among ATP players in 2012, by the way.) Nonetheless he managed to save five break points in the game, including one with a 130 mph ace, before Federer converted on the sixth. Of the four potentially game-winning ad points that Murray served after the first deuce in the game, he made only one first serve.
Moreover, Murray's predictability on serve soon became a problem in the game. His first serves were directed at the Federer backhand on 17 of the 26 points in the game. The second serve followed suit (by my count only two second serves were directed into the Federer body or forehand in the entire game). Federer began to sense that he could dance around his backhand on Murray's second serve, which averaged 88 mph for the match (compared to Federer's 98 mph), and as Federer began hitting solid forehand returns, the advantage began to shift in his favor both on the court and on the scoreboard.
Murray held 4 game points during the first 8 points of the game. He managed to reach only one more ad point through the next 8 points, with Federer steadily applying the pressure and reaching three break points during the same interval, none of which he was able to convert. During the final six points of the game, though, Federer had three break points compared to a single ad point for Murray; and of course, he converted the last one. (I have noted these patterns in Murray's serve before, see http://sports.yahoo.com/tennis/news?slug=ycn-8497111 .)
Somewhat surprisingly, because Murray's return statistics place him among the ATP Tour leaders, Federer's figures returning serve were more impressive than Murray's for the entire 2012 final. He won 40% of the 157 serves he returned compared to Murray's 33% of 131. For the match, Federer converted 4 of 12 break points (33%) compared to 2 of 7 for Murray (29.
Of the 26 points played in the sixth game, 11 were decided by outright winners. Fewer than 10 were clearly unforced errors. Federer finished the match with a winner to unforced error margin of +9 in the third set and +9 in the fourth, compared to Murray's sinking figuers of +5 in the third and +1 in the fourth. For the match, the margins were +24 for Federer and +21 for Murray, with Federer playing the final two sets the way Murray had played the first two.
Post-Match Comments: A Good Match but Not a Great One
Despite the tough loss, in the postmatch interview, Murray tried to be positive, even about the critical break in the third set, saying "I still had chances the game where I got broken in the third set. It was a very, very long game. I had a lot of game points. It wasn't like I gave away bad games or stupid games and stuff. I played a good match. I made pretty good decisions for the most part, so I'm happy with that."
In reply to a final question about the pivotal game, Murray said, "Yeah, it was tough, a tough game to lose. But, you know, I wasn't disappointed necessarily with the way I played in that game. Yeah, it was a frustrating game to lose, but I still had chances after that."
In his post-match press conference, when asked whether he had changed his tactics after the rain delay and the closing of the roof in the third set, Federer said, "Yeah, I mean, I tried to play more aggressive. Obviously there was a lot of wind involved in the first couple of sets. There was sort of a downwind from the right hand side of the umpire's chair, which maybe makes you play more with the elements and less with tactics at times. And when the wind is gone you get more back into tactics, you know, what you can do, what you can't do.Yeah, I tried to take it more to Andy, and I was able to do that, I think. Yeah, I went to maybe fetch victory more than he did potentially. I don't know, but I'm happy that closing the roof maybe helped me today, because I wasn't sure if that was going to help me or not."
A final allusion to the Borg-McEnroe match appeared in The Telegraph of London on July 9: Murray-Federer had an average audience of 11.4 million television viewers in Britain, with a peak of 16.9 million. While this is the highest rating in history for a match featuring a British tennis player, the match fell short of the all-time record average of 17.3 million viewers for the 1980 Wimbledon final.