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BILL DWYRE

Now, the game isn't so easy for Roger Federer

In his loss to Andy Murray at Indian Wells, it becomes clear we may have seen the last of Federer at his best.

March 22, 2009|BILL DWYRE

One thing seemed as clear as Saturday's blue skies above the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, where the men's singles finalists were determined for the BNP Paribas Open.

We have not seen the last of Roger Federer, but we may have seen the last of Roger Federer at his best.

On a day in which the predictable took place in the second semifinal, with No. 1 Rafael Nadal out-battling an improved and game No. 7 Andy Roddick, 6-4, 7-6 (4), the day was defined by the opener.

In that one, a 27-year-old who used to need to do little more than show up, tried everything and every way to beat a young Scot and failed, 6-3, 4-6, 6-1. Roger Federer has won 13 Grand Slam tournaments, one shy of tying the all-time record of Pete Sampras, but that level seemed quite distant as he battled and lost to Andy Murray.

As Federer sprayed 32 unforced errors all over the court, most of them from a backhand that looked more like a disability than a weapon, he appeared to be a great champion who was struggling to remain one. In mid-match, a small airplane circled overhead for 10 to 15 minutes. It hovered ominously, like a vulture. That was, presumably, more coincidence than omen.

Federer is still No. 2 in the world, and he still won a major last year, the U.S. Open. But when he caved badly in a fifth set against Nadal in the Australian Open this year, and had an uncharacteristic emotional meltdown at the awards ceremony when he told the crowd, "God, it's killing me," eyebrows around the tennis world raised.

Now, the young guns are coming, Murray certainly among them. Not only did the fourth-ranked, 21-year-old handle Federer, he did it after yielding a second set, taking a hard fall in the third that would have shaken others and still winning almost nonchalantly. Asked about Federer's reputation for winning deciding sets, Murray mostly shrugged off the thought.

"As long as I'm sort of playing the match on my terms, and getting the ball in the position I want it," he said, "and making him play difficult shots, then I'm not really [thinking about his third-set reputation]."

Then he went on to actually critique Federer's game.

"He started trying to hit forehands from way into the advantage side of the court," Murray said. "He was running around and playing very sort of low-percentage shots. When you do that, you're going to make mistakes."

If anybody has the right to critique Federer, it is Murray. They have now played eight times and Murray has won six.

To Federer's credit, he tried everything. He sliced shots, took the pace off, then changed up with booming ground strokes. He chipped and charged off Murray's serve, then came in behind his own. That got him a second set, but the strategy dissipated quickly and strangely, especially after Murray fell hard on the baseline with Federer serving at 1-2 of the third.

The point that sent Murray down gave Federer a 15-love lead in the game. After he leaned on the net to make sure Murray was all right, Federer let his opponent completely off the hook, making four quick errors. Murray barely needed to run on any of the points, and Federer never won another game.

Federer called his closing performance "a shocking third set." He called Murray a "great counter-puncher," and bristled when asked about his recent late-match fold-ups.

"Fitness," he said. "I'm old. He's young, you know."

Sarcasm was working better than his backhand.

Nadal battled through despite serving for the match at 5-4 of the second set and being broken. In the tiebreaker, Roddick had two serves at 2-2 and lost them both, opening the door for Nadal, who seldom fails to walk through in those situations. Roddick's passing shot on match point went wide.

"I kind of hung around, did what I could," Roddick said.

Roddick got some consolation, coming out shortly after his singles loss to pair with Mardy Fish and win the men's doubles.

When this tournament began, many hoped for yet another Roger versus Rafa faceoff. The public remembers the classics -- especially last year's Wimbledon final -- and the six others in Grand Slam finals. They also know the way the matchup has gone. Nadal leads, 13-6.

Others wanted a chance for some American flag-waving today, hoping, after the first round, for Andy versus Andy.

But Nadal, who leads Murray in their series, 5-2, made it clear that any final is a good one.

"I enjoy playing everybody," he said. "I enjoy playing tennis and being here."

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bill.dwyre@latimes.com.

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BNP Paribas Open

TODAY'S FEATURED MATCHES

Stadium Court

Noon start

WOMEN'S FINAL

Vera Zvonareva, Russia, vs.

Ana Ivanovic, Serbia

Stadium Court

Not before 2 p.m.

MEN'S FINAL

Rafael Nadal, Spain, vs.

Andy Murray, Britain

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