Four months after overcoming Novak Djokovic to become the first British man to win a Grand Slam singles title for 76 years, Andy Murray will attempt to make another piece of history by beating him here on Sunday in the final of the Australian Open. Murray moved within one win of becoming the first man in the Open era to follow up his maiden Grand Slam singles title with victory in the next tournament when he beat Roger Federer 6-4,6-7, 6-3, 6-7, 6-2 after four hours in a thrilling see-saw battle in today’s semi-final.
It was a match that had echoes of Murray’s victory over Djokovic in New York at the US Open as the Scot dominated the early stages with some of the best tennis of his life and then quickly banished the disappointment of letting his opponent back into the match. Murray had been within two points of victory when he served for the match at 6-5 in the fourth set, only for Federer to show the fighting qualities that have brought him a record 17 Grand Slam titles.
In the deciding set, however, Murray demonstrated his own mental strength when he quickly wrested back the initiative to claim his first Grand Slam victory over Federer. The world No 2 had beaten him in all three of their previous meetings – each of them in finals - for the loss of only one set.
Drawing on the confidence he had derived from beating Federer in a five-set match for the first time in last year’s Olympic final, Murray outplayed the 31-year-old Swiss in almost every department for long periods, his only significant lapses coming in the two tie-breaks. In particular Murray served as well as he has ever done, hitting 21 aces – to Federer’s three - and mixing power with clever variations of direction and spin. Federer, meanwhile, frequently struggled on his own serve thanks to the quality of Murray’s returns.
After an overcast and breezy day the wind had died down and at 20C the temperature was almost perfect. Rod Laver Arena crackled with a sense of anticipation before the most eagerly awaited match of the tournament so far and if a majority of the crowd were behind Federer, Murray quickly had his own supporters in full voice.
While Murray has added greater aggression to his game in the last year, Federer has always had trouble coping with the Scot’s counter-punching style. From the start it was clear that Federer did not want to be drawn into lengthy baseline battles. On the very first point of Murray’s opening service game Federer played chip-and-charge, though the Scot’s response - a superb cross-court backhand winner - quickly set the early tone.
Whenever Federer came forward Murray crashed thumping passing shots or forced him into volleying errors. Before long the Swiss was driven into retreat as Murray dominated the opening set. Murray, quickly into a smooth serving rhythm, saved the only break point against him with an ace. Federer, in contrast, was in regular trouble on his own serve, even if Murray was able to convert only one of his seven break points, in the third game.
Federer improved in the second set, but Murray still had the upper hand until the tie-break, when his level dipped for the first time in the match. Federer went 4-1 up after three forehand errors by Murray, who nevertheless fought back to 5-5, only for the Swiss to force set point after a thrilling exchange. Murray had dominated the rally but failed to put away a Sampras-style slam dunk smash, upon which Federer hit an exquisite backhand cross-court winner. When Murray hit a forehand long on the next point Federer bellowed out a roar of celebration.
Murray must have wondered how he could be playing so well and yet be level at one set apiece, but if he felt any frustration he did not show it. The Scot immediately resumed control in the third set and after failing to take a break point in the opening game he broke to 15 in the sixth before serving out for the set with his 16 ace.
Federer was becoming increasingly rattled, but from out of nowhere the Swiss broke to lead 3-1 in the fourth set as Murray played his worst game of the match. Three games later, however, Murray broke back and at 5-5 he broke Federer to love with some outstanding attacking shots. Federer, nevertheless, played his best return game when Murray served for the match at 6-5 to force a second tie-break, which the Swiss dominated once again, winning five successive points from 2-2.
However, just as he had after Djokovic had drawn level from two sets down in New York, Murray came out with all guns blazing in the decider. He raced into a 3-0 lead and won the match in style by breaking Federer for the sixth time as the Swiss hit a forehand long on Murray’s second match point.
The stage is therefore set for a repeat of last summer’s US Open final, when Murray beat Djokovic in five sets. With both men in such form, Sunday’s match promises to be an occasion to remember.