Sunday January 31st, 2010

Five things we've learned from tonight's Australian Open men's final:

1. Roger Federer is still the king. Not exactly a news flash. But he was at his numinous, luminous best, beating Andy Murray 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (11) to take major No. 16. Playing a fine opponent in a big match, Federer played with customary brilliance but he also turned in an exceptionally strong performance mentally. He won all the "big points," staved off five set points in the tie-breaker, and, by his own reckoning, played some of his best tennis ever. Just a gem of a performance.

2. Offense wins championships. Last night we saw Justine Henin play excessively attacking tennis. Against Federer, we saw Murray play too passively, seldom taking initiative and reverting to his counterpunching days. He didn't serve particularly well, rarely came to the net and let Federer bully him from the baseline. It was Federer who attacked, punished Murray for short balls and applied constant pressure.

3. Federer got a pretty good grilling here -- and, I gather, on American TV -- for his gamesmanship and "bulletin board material" before the final. Let's deconstruct Federer's "trash talk." A) The first set would be crucial for Murray. B) Murray has beaten him in head-to-heads but there was a difference between tour stops and Grand Slams. C) Murray would bear significant pressure, shouldering the hopes of a nation and knowing he has yet to win a major. When do we get to the part where Federer was wrong?

4. Murray ought to be gutted. The Australian Open has a history of just-happy-to-be-here finalists. This wasn't the case this year. Murray is a top-shelf player with a complete game. He didn't spend much time on the court this tournament -- but when he did, he was gangbusters, especially in his rout of Nadal. He likes the surface, he likes the conditions, and he's had success against Federer. Beating the best player ever is, of course, a tall order. But Murray is likely disappointed for not putting up more resistance.

5. A year ago, Roger Federer had lost for the fourth time in five Slams and was reduced to tears by still another defeat at the hands of his rival, Rafael Nadal. Folks were well within their rights to wonder if he'd catch Pete Sampras' record, if he were the greatest of all time after all. Since then? He's won three of four majors -- and probably should have won the fourth. With Nadal in iffy condition, with Federer's mastery of the other contenders in majors, with his game back at such a high level, is it so far-fetched to speculate that this might be the year Federer wins all four majors?

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