Shock Murray demise has resurgent Federer dreaming again
The 2016 season was all about two men: Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. Both have now fallen in Melbourne, leaving the rest of the field, including a surging Roger Federer, to start dreaming about the prize they have left unguarded.
The Norman Brookes Challenge Cup usually feels like it is locked up in a triple-security bank vault. But this year it might as well be standing in plain sight. The tournament is more open than it has been since 2002, the unpredictable year when Thomas Johansson claimed the title.
Djokovic's dramatic defeat by Denis Istomin was followed by a similar slip-up by Murray, who can rarely have been more favoured than he was against world No 50 Mischa Zverev. A long-time habitué of the Challenger circuit, Zverev used his old-fashioned serve-volley tactics to crowd Murray out of the match, winning 7-5, 5-7, 6-2, 6-4.
One potential beneficiary of this latest shock is Federer, who overcame Kei Nishikori in a thrilling five-set struggle. Instead of playing Murray in the quarter-final, he will find himself facing a bolter who has never previously been past the third round of a grand slam.
Federer may be used to seeing the world fall at his feet but he can hardly have dreamed of such a cushy return after a six-month lay-off following knee surgery.
The assumption was that he would fail to match last year's run to the semi-finals and thus suffer a rapid slide down the rankings. Now he stands third in the betting to win the thing.
Everyone thought that the left-handed Zverev's net-rushes would play into Murray's strengths: aggressive returns and laser-guided passing shots. We expected him to make an easy target, but what unfolded felt more like a devastating ambush. Perhaps the rarity of serve-volleyers means the few that remain have the advantage of unfamiliarity.
Like Istomin, Zverev was magnificent, never more than when closing the match out. He just kept charging forward, even when Murray knocked the ball past him, so that he played 118 points from the net. He knew that he was not going to win from the baseline, even if his curiously short-swinging, bunted groundstrokes inflicted plenty of damage of their own.
Like Djokovic on Thursday, Murray played at a respectable level without quite clicking into his best rhythm.
Having struggled with a variety of injuries in his career, the Zverev (29) has had no form until this last few months. Everyone assumed that it would be his super-talented younger brother, Alexander, who would make the headlines.
Asked how he had got the job done, Zverev replied: "I was like in a little coma, just serve-and--volleying my way through it. I think you should tell me how I did it because, honestly, there were a few points when I don't know how I pulled it off."
Murray credited his opponent with "great, great shots", adding: "You always finish matches you lose with things you maybe could have done a bit better. But he played some really good stuff.
"Did I miss an opportunity?" Murray continued. "I don't feel like this is any more of an opportunity than other years."
This argument was supported by the quality of the Federer-Nishikori match, which saw Federer reel off 83 clean winners on his way to his 6-7, 6-4, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 victory.
Despite a slow start that granted Nishikori a 4-0 first-set lead, Federer gradually cranked up the power until he was even coming out on top in the backhand-to-backhand exchanges, traditionally his weakest suit.
"I guess it's good for tennis that a lot of guys believe stronger now that the top guys are vulnerable," said Federer. He himself is looking anything but. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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