Taro Daniel advanced to the third round of a Grand Slam tournament for the very first time on Thursday after defeating Andy Murray 6-4 6-4 6-4. The Japanese is enjoying a wonderful start to the season, qualifying and making the second round at Adelaide just before the Australian Open. That seems to have given him confidence for the big event, which he used to make it through the qualifying again, without dropping a set. And although Murray is ranked outside the top 100 right now, it could be argued that due to his stature and the fact that the match was at a Major that this was the best win of the 28-year-old’s career.
Taro Daniel Posts Career Best Win
Posting great serving numbers
Statistically, one of the clear improvements Daniel made during the off-season was his serving. Over his whole career, the Japanese had an ace percentage (ace per point played on serve) of around 4,5%. In the matches he played at Adelaide and the Australian Open qualifying, it increased to roughly 10%, before absolutely peaking against Salvatore Caruso. Daniel hit 15 aces in 41 service points in that one, which equates to 37% (more than one ace every three points). His percentage of points won behind his first serve never dropped below 76 (vs Tommy Paul) and went as high as 90 (vs Andrea Arnaboldi).
While this particular feature of the Japanese’s game on average shouldn’t be as visible against Murray, one of the best returners in the history of the sport, the physicality of the matchup meant that any help you can get from your serve was absolutely vital (a total of 55 points went over nine shots). However, the 28-year-old still blasted 12 aces in 98 service points, giving him an ace percentage of 12%. Behind his first-serve, he was able to take 79% of the points (45/57).
This would be impressive for a player who bases his game around serving well, but this isn’t true at all for the Japanese. Daniel’s baseline game was never an issue as the 28-year-old can keep the ball inside the tramlines to outlast his rivals and is very comfortable changing directions from cross-court to down-the-line and vice versa. Elite foot speed allows him to cover the corners of the court extremely well and turn defense into offense by aggressively striking the ball from seemingly tough positions.
Dealing with the pressure
Having never progressed past the second round at a Grand Slam (previous losses to Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka, Denis Shapovalov, and Pablo Carreno Busta), it was unknown how Daniel would handle the situation mentally. Even though Murray isn’t exactly in his prime, playing against him still carries a completely different type of pressure. Only one of the 28-year-old’s wins had been somewhat comparable – over then-world #13 Novak Djokovic at the 2018 Indian Wells Masters and the Serbian was in perhaps the worst shape of his career at that time fresh from elbow surgery.
The Japanese seemed unfazed against Murray though as he just proved that he was playing every bit as well as his previous performances in 2022 suggested. Daniel’s baseline game is not exactly about blasting groundstroke winners, yet they’ve been piercing through his opponents defences so far at the Australian Open. The Japanese hit twelve from the forehand wing past Murray and along with his incredible rally tolerance, it left the Briton without an easy way to claw back into the match.
While the players went toe-to-toe in the extended rallies (28-27 for the Japanese), Daniel achieved sizeable leads in both the medium (26-17) and short ones (60-48). He was also excellent in the forecourt, winning 20 out of 25 points at the net. All in all, the Japanese hit 46 winners to a mere 21 unforced errors. It was a statement win that might just be one of the most important ones of his career.
Daniel awaits a meeting with either Jannik Sinner in the third round of the 2022 Australian Open. While he’s already expected to go up to about 110th in the ATP Rankings (his career-high is world #64, back from 2018), this is where the points gained with every single win start to ramp up a lot. Can he actually take down a bonafide title contender in the 20-year-old Italian? At this point in time, Sinner is a big step up in quality, even compared to Murray. The Japanese’s game hit a significant lull during the beginning of the third set against the Brit, which he would need to absolutely avoid to have a shot at the world #10.
Daniel could be facing an uphill battle, but his prospects for the remaining part of the season look really promising. Especially if he maintains that increased quality of serving. For someone whose best quality is his baseline game, these two or three additional aces and a couple of additional serve plus one points per set could mean transcending his game to a whole new level.
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