January 10, 2010

The Importance of Defense

It's been a weird week for Andy Murray.

Now I know that I've never been his biggest fan, but some funky math has made his Australian Open chances a little hairier. Don't get me wrong, he's still one of the favorites -- it's just that his draw just got a bit tougher, almost through no fault of his own.

Murray spent the week in Perth, Australia, where he and compatriot Laura Robson were fighting for the Hyundai Hopman Cup -- a sort of combination between Davis and Fed Cup competition, and the only non-Major tournament with a mixed doubles category. He did fairly well, winning all of his Round Robin singles matches and helping his team to reach the finals against Spaniards Tommy Robredo and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez.

That's where he began to struggle a bit. After taking the first set from Robredo, 6-1, Murray found himself under pressure on his service game in the second, and ultimately dropped the match, 6-1, 4-6, 3-6, his first loss to the Spaniard since 2007. When Robredo and Sanchez Martinez then coupled for the doubles win too, Great Britain -- and Andy -- ceded the trophy to the now three-time champions.

That wasn't necessarily the worst result, but because players aren't awarded ranking points for their appearances at the Hopman Cup, all of Murray's wins earlier in the week do nothing for his position. And when you consider that a year ago he'd won the title in Doha -- not the biggest tournament, but certainly one that attracts the top talent -- he was actually losing points this weeks, regardless of his results Down Under.

And that means when the latest rankings come out tomorrow, former world #2 Andy Murray will now be in fifth place, just five points behind U.S. Open champ Juan Martin Del Potro, a man he's beaten in all but one of their six meetings. And now that he's out of the top four -- the first time since August, 2008 -- he could face Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal in the quarters in Melbourne!

Even I admit that somehow, it doesn't seem right.

Just one match win in Qatar would have kept him where he was, but because Murray didn't defend his title, his road to the Final Four isn't quite so clear. Of course, brackets seldom progress as seeds suggest they should, and there's no reason anyone should not consider Andy a threat. But things certainly have gotten a little more interesting as we head to the first Grand Slam of the year.

And I have a feeling we're in for a few more surprises!

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