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Brain Game: Murray Out-grinds Ferrer

Sony Open Tennis

Murray© Getty ImagesAndy Murray hit more backhands than forehands in his win over David Ferrer.

Craig O'Shannessy breaks down the Sony Open Tennis final.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone in the world out-grinding Spanish workhorse David Ferrer, but that’s exactly how Andy Murray found victory in the final of the Sony Open in Miami. Murray saved a match point, winning 2-6, 6-4, 7-6(1), in a punishing, defensive battle that amazingly saw the ultra-fit Ferrer cramping at the end of the match.

Murray hit more backhands than forehands, hit the ball with less velocity, played deeper in the court, came to the net less and was broken more, but at the end of the day somehow got the job done in one of the most physical hard court finals you could imagine.

Ferrer could easily have been the victor. When he held match point at 6-5 in the third set, he stopped the rally to challenge a call. The Hawk Eye review showed Murray’s shot caught the back part of the baseline.

Murray played a far more defensive, error-prone match than normal but one of the tests of true champions is the ability to get the job done when you are not at the top of your game. The match ended up as a last man standing affair and an exhausted, resilient Murray did the unthinkable of beating the world’s best grinder at his own game.

Backhand Battle
Murray hit 305 backhands for the match and 277 forehands, representing 52% of all groundstrokes and approach shots for the match. This made for longer, more grueling points.

Murray finished with five backhand winners for the match but made 40 backhand errors, including 32 groundstrokes and eight from the return of serve. He hit 11 forehand winners (nine groundstroke/two return) and made one less total forehand errors with 39 (31 groundstroke/eight return).

In general, forehands count for around three out of every four groundstroke winners at the ATP World Tour level and players will generally run all the way to the alley in their opposite court to turn a backhand into a forehand.

Even though Murray has one of the best backhands in the world, he typically will look to upgrade to a more potent forehand at every opportunity. For example, Murray hit 56% forehands in his semi-final win against Richard Gasquet, including 55 run-around forehands in the Ad court.

But against Ferrer, Murray settled for backhands more often in the Ad court, which was a major contributor to the match being so close and physical. In short, Murray’s overuse of his backhand hurt him far more than it helped him. It also directly helped his opponent turn more backhands into forehands and create a much more even contest.

In the final, Ferrer hit 297 (51%) forehands and 277 (49%) backhands, running around his backhand in the Ad court more so than Murray to upgrade to his more lethal forehand.

Ferrer hit four forehand winners and one backhand winner for the match and made 43 forehand errors (34 groundstroke/nine return) and 36 backhand errors (27 groundstroke/ nine return).

Ferrer also has one of the best backhands in the world but is always on the prowl in the Ad court to upgrade to a forehand. In his semi-final victory over Tommy Haas, Ferrer dominated with 69% forehands for the match, which helped restrict Haas to hitting only hitting 37% forehands. That’s a winning strategy every day of the week that leads to more tennis being played on Sunday afternoons.

Standing Deep
An unusual aspect of the Murray/Ferrer final was that Murray stood further back than Ferrer but was still able to win the match. Murray made contact with the ball 83% of the time behind the baseline while Ferrer was at 80%. Most of the time the player who stands up in the court wins the match, but it had less importance in this highly physical battle. 

Ferrer had the slight edge when the points were shorter but Murray got the better of him in the longer, grinding exchanges. When the points were 10 shots or less Ferrer won 82 to Murray’s 78 but Murray won 28 points when they were extended past 10 shots to Ferrer’s 19.

At 3-3 in the third set we had the highly unusual statistic that there were 11 holds of serve and 13 breaks of serve.

Both players directed exactly 64% of total groundstrokes through the Ad court, pounding away at their opponent’s backhand wing.  Surprisingly, Ferrer was hitting the bigger ball, with his average groundstroke speed at 73mph compared to Murray’s 71mph.

Ferrer was credited with 50 unforced errors for the match to Murray’s 45 as both players struggled to play at his best against an opponent with a very similar game style to his own.

Ferrer was the more adventurous to the net, winning 71% (15/21) of his points while Murray only won 50% (seven/14) of the time coming forward.

Murray ran slightly less than Ferrer for the match (3512 metres to 3703 metres) but both players were completely exhausted with the match lasting two hours and 45 minutes.

Serve It Up
Another unusual aspect of the match is that Murray was broken more times than Ferrer (eight to seven) but still won. Both players would be unhappy with how they served, with Ferrer only winning 32% of his second serve points and Murray marginally better at 38%.

Both players directed every second serve to the backhand side with the exception of one surprise second serve hit by Murray in the deuce court wide to the forehand. Ferrer was able to get a little more on his second serve, averaging 92mph, while Murray’s average second serve speed was only 81mph.

In the end, Murray survived a Hawk-Eye challenge on match point from Ferrer that kissed the baseline. An inch or two deeper and Ferrer would have been crowned the Sony Open Tennis champion.

Craig O'Shannessy uses extensive tagging, metrics and formulas to uncover the patterns and percentages behind the game.


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