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Friday, March 20, 2009
Can Fed handle Murray's bag of tricks?

So far, the early tournaments of 2009 suggest this year will be one of continued transition rather than the status quo, or even radical change, in men's tennis. Basically, the results suggest that everything other than the clay-court titles (for which Rafael Nadal has had something like a "right of first refusal" for a few years now) is up for grabs.

The results in Melbourne confirmed this, and the run-up to the weekend in the desert at the BNP Paribas Open has as well. Nadal is the clear No. 1, but below him, it's a game of musical chairs likely to get more spirited and fast-paced as the next few months unfurl toward Roland Garros.

Thus, you can look at the upcoming Indian Wells semifinal between Roger Federer and Andy Murray as a bellwether match that will suggest just how alertly Federer must glance over his shoulder (at the likes of Murray, Novak Djokovic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and maybe the redesigned Andy Roddick) even as he's in a dead sprint, trying to catch Nadal.

Murray, you may have noticed, is 5-2 against Federer. Anyone else notice just the wee bit of frost in the comment Federer made after his last match at Indian Wells, as he looked ahead to this semifinal matchup?

"I'm aware that he has beaten me more than I've beaten him, but on big occasions, I think I came through," Federer said. "I have to build on that and make sure I play a tough and good match against him. Anything else is not going to do the job against him."

I wouldn't exactly call that bulletin-board material, but we know the buried message: If I can get myself into a Grand Slam-final frame of mind, you can throw that head-to-head record right out the window.

The only problem with Federer's reasoning is that he's got a pretty narrow definition of "big occasions." For among Murray's wins, three have occurred at the level just below that of majors: two in Masters Series events (Cincinnati and Madrid) and one at last Masters Cup -- the official year-end tour championships and, notionally, the fifth-most important tournament of the year.

So it seems that Murray is more than capable of bringing his A-game to bear on Federer at an A-event, and the relatively slow cement courts at Indian Wells will enable Murray to dig as deep as he wants into his counterpunching, bait-and-switch, table-turning bag of tricks. The guy is remarkably good at luring Federer -- and everyone else -- into what often ends up looking like a much more artfully and programmatically laid trap than you can actually achieve in a liquid game whose closest thing to a set play is the serve-and-volley.

Still, when you look at Federer's enormous skills, his experience and competitive talents, you have to wonder why he has so much trouble with Murray. My theory is that Murray kind of confuses and annoys him by encroaching on turf that everyone else -- most especially Nadal -- concedes to Federer. For one of the distinguishing -- and welcome -- features of Murray's game is that it seems a mite … magical. It's "artistic" and unpredictable. Murray may not move or swing the stick as fluently and effortlessly as Federer, but he often gets to the same place, flummoxing opponents with versatility and skill.

If Murray pulls out the win, there will be that much more evidence that the game is indeed in transition, long past that phase when it was all about Federer, with a side order of Nadal. Maybe even past the phase when it was all about the rivalry of the top two players.