By Andrew Eccles
Under the blue skies of Abu Dhabi, Andy Murray hit his way to his best-ever win over Rafael Nadal, with an impressive 6-2, 6-0 scoreline. The match was a marquee semi-final, but it would earn neither player any ranking points. It would not be officially recorded in the head-to-head of the competitors. It was not even considered part of the 2015 tennis season that would begin a mere two days later.
So, does it matter? Can we ever really learn anything from an exhibition?
A fight over this question has raged among tennis fans for some time and this latest result, alongside Novak Djokovic’s easy 6-2, 6-1 win over Stan Wawrinka in the opposite semifinal – and his own withdrawal from the final due to a fever – has seen a flurry of the familiar fan wars those of us who exist mostly on social media have come to know (and hate):
Murray will win ALL the Slams!
Nadal will never win a major again!
Djokovic won’t be able to play Australia!
Stand back and look at any of these claims objectively, and you can see they are utter nonsense, as is any drawn from exhibition alone. There are, of course, lots of much smaller things that we can learn from exhibition matches, if we’re willing to be reasonable and not let ourselves get over-excited.
Let’s look at the Murray/Nadal match, for instance, and see what we can be properly gleaned from that.
First: the former No. 1 looks like he’s almost ready for action. There was obvious rust, big misses on big points, mistakes when he tried to force his forehand, and maybe even a little bit of mid-match fatigue. Nadal will need some time to settle back into a competitive rhythm after a long break from the game, but he certainly didn’t look like a broken man.
Despite the one-sidedness of the result, fans of Nadal should be encouraged to see their man back up and running. The 2014 season was strange without his familiar figure taking to the courts, and draws were certainly left unbalanced thanks to his absence – although Roger Federer certainly rose to the opportunities it provided him.
So, Nadal is back, and he looks like he’s good to go.
The second thing we learned is that Murray’s own fitness looks to be no concern. After a year struggling to find his old form following a late-2013 back surgery, the Brit has shifted the shape of his team, bringing in a fitness trainer to join coach Amelie Mauresmo. His off-season prep looks to be holding him in good stead, and the foot speed for which he’s always been lauded looks to be even more formidable, judging from points like this one:
Another thing to note from this match is the effectiveness of Murray’s cross-court backhand, which was firing with laser precision throughout the encounter, as well as his willingness to attack the net when opportunity knocked. The influence of Mauresmo, a fine volleyer and Wimbledon champion herself, seems to be appearing in his game.
None of these factors guarantee that Murray will be World No. 1 by the end of the year, nor do they mean that Nadal will remain fighting fit throughout the season – but they are small indications of how the players are feeling as it begins.
The bigger questions cannot be quantified by exhibitions, which is why we should exercise caution when looking at such results. Tennis is a mental sport as much as a physical one, and as much as players may treat exhibitions as competitive endeavors, there is infinitely less pressure and far less exuberance exhibited upon success. A chance to send warning shots to a fine opponent should never be underrated, but there isn’t so much of a fire in the belly. If you don’t believe me, watch Wawrinka’s performance against Djokovic. The reigning Australian Open champion lacked focus, even the will to fight. Such worrying signs shown at any other point of the year would be of greater note. Not so in Abu Dhabi.
When is a tennis match not a tennis match? Well, never, really.
(Unless we’re talking a legends set of the IPTL which is, frankly, not a tennis match).
Exhibitions between highly relevant players such as these should be studied for their subtleties and for their warning signs, but should not be held up with untempered foreboding.
They will not decide the outcome of the real battles to come.