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Kurt Streeter

Scotsman is ready for final

September 08, 2008|Kurt Streeter

NEW YORK -- We figured the men's final at Flushing Meadows would be a matter of Roger Federer trying to gain redemption and Rafael Nadal trying to cement his status.

Instead, we have a surprise: A Gumby-limbed Scotsman will now take to center court and play the great Federer for the 127th U.S. Open title. The Scotsman's name, for the dilettantes who tune in only on the last day of tournaments like this, is Andy Murray. He's 21, for a good while a rising star, and as of this week a legitimate Grand Slam title threat.

In attitude and look -- unending thirst for tennis ball retrieval, wispy, unkempt hair -- Murray is scruffy as a backyard dog. I know what you are thinking: A guy like Murray hasn't got a chance against the fine-linened Federer.

Think again. Murray has serious game. Certainly enough game to have a real shot at denying Federer his 13th Grand Slam tournament title.

You'd have no choice but to come to this conclusion if you watched the masterful tennis Murray produced during Sunday's rain-weary, one-set and five-game conclusion of his semifinal against Rafael Nadal. There has been great tennis played here these past two weeks, but none better than this when considering the heavy mix of pressure, drama and skill.

Back on Saturday, with the tail of a tropical storm whipping toward New York, Murray won the first two sets of this best-of-five set match. Nadal, seeded No. 1 and heretofore the hottest thing going in men's tennis, was up a nudge, 3-2 and a service break in the third set. Then rain crashed in sheets, forcing a Sunday finish.

"I knew Nadal was going to come at me," Murray would later say, adding that his goal was to stay calm against an expected rush.

It turned out as he expected once the first ball was in play. Looking nothing like the strength-sapped man he'd been at the start of this match, Nadal came out revived and the court cracked with the sound of his shots like a battle-ax laying into brittle hunks of wood on a calm day.

It did not take too long for Nadal to finish off the set, gaining momentum for the first time in the match. It looked suddenly as if fans would get what most of them wanted: Nadal versus Federer.

The fourth set began with shadows creeping over the court and Nadal and Murray smothering every shot. One moment, Murray would seize the advantage, taking two steps forward every time one of his groundstrokes caused Nadal to take two steps back. Then Nadal would turn matters around.

Nadal served with the score at 1-0. Murray dashed in front in this game, getting a break point. Nadal saved it. Another break point came. Another save. It kept up like this. Save Nadal. Break point again. Ace. Ad Nadal. Save Murray on a blistering winner. It was tennis played with such skill and power that the crowd kept rising, gasping, stomping, clapping and throwing fists in the air, a reaction that was part admiration, part exhortation, part thanks. Finally, after fighting off seven break points for the sixth-seeded Murray, Nadal won the game.

How would the Scotsman react to losing all those tense chances to charge in front? "I kept my emotions in check," he would later say.

But he didn't play like it. Nadal surged ahead 3-1 and held a 30-love lead in the fifth game. Get ready, Roger, you thought.

For some reason, maybe because Murray added extra juice on his serves and strokes, maybe because Nadal was tired after a marathon year, the Spaniard let his grip go weak and Murray took advantage, pressing forward.

Soon the Scot was ahead, and he found himself just two winning strokes from the match. Knowing the importance, both players became gunslingers, firing shot after shot from the heels, then pulling up for slices that slowed the pace. When Murray finally won that point, I saw something I'd not seen before: Rafael Nadal bent over, clutching his pants, struggling for air, gassed.

A few moments passed, the crowd grew quiet: match point. Murray steered it past a stunned Nadal. Final score: 6-2, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-4.

Murray can win the final against Federer, no doubt. As he showed Sunday, he has every weapon, and after a rocky maturation, rock solid self-belief. Indeed, he may have a better all-around backcourt game, on hard courts at least, than the man going for his fifth consecutive U.S. Open title. Federer's backhand can break down, particularly on high, hard-spinning balls. It's why Nadal essentially owns him. On Sunday, Murray continuously shoved high backhands down Nadal's throat.

"I played well enough to beat the No. 1 player in the world over two days, and I've beaten Roger in the past," the Scot said, referring to his victory over Nadal and his 2-1 record against Federer in matches played in lesser tournaments. "I have the tennis . . . I just have to make sure I do it for three sets out of five."

True enough. Here's hoping that today the scruffy Scot brings the game he flashed Sunday. If he does, an unexpected U.S. Open final could end up a classic.

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Kurt Streeter can be reached at kurt.streeter@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Streeter, go to latimes.com/streeter.

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