• The Numbers Game

Undone by the serve

S Rajesh
July 9, 2012
Andy Murray's serve let him down in the later stages of the Wimbledon final © PA Photos

Coming into the final, Andy Murray had reason to like his chances of winning his first Grand Slam title. True, he had lost thrice at this stage in the past - twice to Roger Federer - but there was something about the way he'd played in these two weeks that justified the hype and the expectations.

Ivan Lendl's influence had made him more aggressive with his ground game, but perhaps even more crucial was his serve. Murray himself admitted that under Lendl, he had practised far fewer serves leading up to the tournament, a strategy that had helped him. "I hit a lot less serves than I used to," Murray said. "Ivan is more of the opinion that you need to rest your shoulder and make sure it's loose, not tired, when you go out on to the court and into big tournaments, because over the course of two weeks you hit thousands of serves. I've hit a lot fewer serves since I started working with him. That's maybe a reason why I'm serving well deeper into the tournament. He's worked a lot on my second serve too since the start of the year and that's something that has been good."

The results were there to see in the matches leading up to the final: in the quarters and the semis, his first-serve percentage was more than 60, and it helped him wriggle out of several tight spots. It was a major weapon in the first half of the final too, with Murray's first-serve percentage being 72% in the second set, and 64% in the first two.

When the roof closed, though, Murray's serving efficiency dropped, and Federer exploited that ruthlessly. From a high of 64% in the first two sets, Murray's first serve percentage fell to 47%, which was always going to be too low against an opponent of Federer's class. Simultaneously, Federer lifted his return game too, winning 39% of points off Murray's first serve, compared to just 25% in the first two - most likely, the fall in percentages also forced Murray to play it slightly safer with his first serves as well.

At the same time, Federer raised his levels on his service games too, especially with points won on second serve. In the last two sets, he won 61% of his second-serve points - in the first set it was 27% - which was especially creditable against a player like Murray, whose return game is such a strength. The indoor conditions helped Federer clean up his game too, allowing him to go for the lines with more certainty - in the last two sets, his unforced errors dropped to 14, from 24 in the first two.

Key stats in the final
Stat Fed-1st two sets Murray-1st two sets Fed-last two sets Murray-last two sets
1st serve % 53/76=70% 52/81=64% 37/55=67% 36/76=47%
1st serve points won % 38/53=72% 39/52=75% 30/37=81% 22/36=61%
2nd serve points won % 9/23=39% 12/29=41% 11/18=61% 21/40=52%
Break point conversion 2/5 2/6 2/7 0/1
Winners 30 24 32 21
Unforced errors 24 9 14 16

In fact, a low first-serve percentage has been a regular feature for Murray in his matches with Federer. In their 16 meetings, only twice has his first serve percentage exceeded 60, and on both occasions he won the match: in Madrid in 2008 (3-6, 6-3, 7-5), and in Doha next year (6-7, 6-2, 6-2). Of course, he has beaten Federer on other occasions too, with a poorer first-serve percentage (in Cincinnati in 2006, he won 7-5, 6-4 with a 41% stat), but it'll surely help his cause if he consistently serves better, especially given the potency of his first strike. Federer, on the other hand, has a 60-plus first-serve percentage in eight of their 16 matches.

Despite the lower first-serve rate, Murray out-aced Federer 16-12, which has also been the norm in their match-ups: in ten out of 16 matches Murray has served more aces, and has a 125-93 lead in ace count in these 16 meetings. Unfortunately for him, the final result - in the Grand Slam context, at least - followed a familiar script as well.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.