Brain Game: Murray's Impenetrable Shield Mightier Than The Sword
The relationship between forehands and backhands is very much like a sword and a shield. Generally, you attack with the forehand (sword) and defend with the backhand (shield), all the time looking to battle from more superior court positioning than your opponent.
Andy Murray defeated Roberto Bautista Agut 7-6(1), 6-1 in the final of the Shanghai Rolex Masters by showcasing one of the most impenetrable shields in the sport. Bautista Agut constantly tested the Murray backhand with his own run-around forehand, but time and time again it was not a big enough weapon to inflict any damage.
Bautista Agut’s Spanish style of play relies heavily on run-around forehands in the Ad Court, rifling them back cross court to his right-handed opponent’s backhand, and then looking to open a hole in the vacant deuce court later in the point.
The problem for Bautista Agut is that strategy will work just fine against almost everyone else in the world except Murray, because of the quality of his shield.
With the first set even at 5-5, Murray would win 19 of the next 21 points to dominate the tie-break and surge to a 2-0 lead in the second set. During that period, Bautista Agut hammered away at the Murray backhand, making the Brit hit 37 backhands, and just 28 forehands.
The problem for Bautista Agut is that Murray made 35 backhands in a row before finally committing an error, which contributed to the World No. 2 being broken for 2-1. From 5-5 in the first set to the end of the match, Murray hit 63 backhands, and only committed three errors. Quite simply, the Bautista Agut strategy was constantly faced with the proverbial brick wall when trying to enforce his favourite patterns of play that got him to his first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 final.
Murray hit 60 per cent backhand groundstrokes (excluding returns and volleys), and 40 per cent forehands for the match, which was forced upon him by the Spaniard’s preferred baseline strategy. His backhands committed only 12 errors in 86 shots - or around an error every seven backhands. Murray’s forehand groundstroke, meanwhile, committed 10 errors form 65 shots, which is an error every six-and-a-half forehands.
In the first set, a part of Murray’s strategy was to counter Bautista Agut’s run-around forehand with run-around forehands of his own. In that opening frame, Murray hit 42 per cent of his forehands as a run-around in the Ad court (27 from the Ad Court / 38 from the Deuce Court), but from 5-5, Murray altered his strategy to only hit three run-around forehands in the last two games and the tie-break, while hitting 20 backhands. In the second set, Murray hit 76 per cent of his forehands (31) in the Deuce court, with just 10 being run-around. Basically, the Brit kept it simple, and relied on his trusty shield a lot more.
While the match had many bruising baseline exchanges, Murray created the majority of his separation in the shorter points. He won the rallies in the 0-4 shot range by 14 points (37-23), created a nine-point advantage in the 5-9 shot range (20-11), and narrowly edged the Spaniard in the longer rallies of 9+ shots, 13-12.
Overall, Murray ran less (1623m to 1779m), committed less unforced errors (19-25), and converted every break point he created (4/4). As he ran away with the match in the second set, he made 41 of 44 backhands, offering no point of attack for Bautista Agut’s probing Ad Court baseline tactics.
The main problem for Bautista Agut is that he was having to adapt and modify his style against Murray, rather than the other way around. That’s a hidden benefit for the World No. 2 in having one of the best shields in our game.