US Open: Andy Murray's major opportunity
At least one senior figure in British tennis has long held the belief that Andy Murray would have to wait until the end of the Roger and Rafa years before making his Grand Slam breakthrough. Once the domination of Federer and Nadal was over, he maintained, Murray would not only claim his first major but also go on to become a multiple Grand Slam champion.
Has Murray's moment finally arrived? For the first time since the 2004 French Open, the semi-finals of a Grand Slam tournament this weekend will feature neither Nadal nor Federer. The Spaniard is at home in Majorca nursing his battered knees and the Swiss has made his earliest departure from the US Open for nine years.
Murray, meanwhile, has reached the semi-finals for the second year in succession. The 25-year-old Scot gave his supporters a scare in the process – he was outplayed by Marin Cilic for a set and a half on Wednesday night before winning 3-6, 7-6, 6-2, 6-0 – but his progress extended a remarkable record of consistency. Murray has reached the last four in seven of the last eight Grand Slam tournaments, the exception being his quarter-final defeat at this year's French Open.
Murray will face Tomas Berdych, the world No 7, in tomorrow's semi-finals after the Czech's stunning 7-6, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 victory over Federer. The other semi-final will feature the winner of yesterday's late quarter-finals: Novak Djokovic against Juan Martin del Potro and David Ferrer against Janko Tipsarevic.
Both Federer and Nadal have bounced back from past setbacks in their careers, but time marches on. Federer looked and sounded decidedly downcast after his quarter-final defeat to Berdych. "I really expected myself to play better tonight," the 31-year-old Swiss said. "Obviously, there is a bit of a let-down now." He added: "We'll see where I go from now."
Federer's tournament followed what has become a familiar pattern in the last two and a half years, with the glorious exception of Wimbledon this summer. As usual, the Swiss cut a swathe through the early rounds – he had not dropped a set until he faced Berdych – but he struggled once he met high-quality opposition.
Berdych, who has beaten Federer in four of their last seven meetings, said: "There is probably something in my game that he doesn't like and makes him struggle and maybe brings him out of his comfort zone. He always likes to have time and he always likes to be the one who is dictating the game. If there is someone else who can be in his position, then that's the way I've been successful in a couple of matches with him."
Nadal, meanwhile, is taking the longest break of his career in an attempt to resolve what has become an increasingly serious issue with his knees. The 26-year-old Spaniard has not played since Wimbledon and announced recently that he would be out for another two months, which would mean he would not return before the season-ending World Tour Finals in London. Given the immensely physical nature of his game, it remains to be seen how much more of a pounding his suspect knees can take.
As for Murray, what doubts there have been about his potential have usually concerned his mind rather than his body. The world No 4 is one of the fittest players on the tour, but after losing his first four Grand Slam finals (a record matched in the Open era only by his coach, Ivan Lendl), questions have been asked as to whether he has the mental strength to make the ultimate breakthrough.
Murray believes that his gold medal-winning performance at the Olympics has been an important boost to his confidence, though that was not evident from the first hour of his quarter-final here against Cilic.
Because of another rain delay, the match had been switched from Arthur Ashe Stadium to Louis Armstrong Stadium, which is a much tighter arena. Murray, who struggled on Armstrong against Feliciano Lopez last Saturday, reckons that the conditions are much quicker than on Ashe. The Scot looked badly out of sorts for a set and a half, hurled his racket to the floor in frustration after one break of serve and chuntered away at the back of the court, apparently complaining to nobody in particular.
If that was just like the Murray of old, in his pre-Lendl days, what followed was an example of the progress he has made under his new coach. Smacking winners from all corners of the court and hurrying Cilic into a series of mistakes, Murray won 17 of the last 20 games, as well as the tie-break at the end of the second set.
"When the conditions slowed down a bit and started to get a bit darker, that helped me," Murray said afterwards. "I just tried to dictate the points from the baseline. I played closer to the baseline. I was more aggressive on his second serve. I started serving better and then gained confidence in my shots from the baseline, because the first set and a half I was leaving the ball short and wasn't timing it well."
Federer and Berdych were playing their first set at the time of Murray's post-match press conference. As the questions centred on how he might fare against Federer in the semi-finals, Murray interjected: "Tomas Berdych is a great player, as well. Let's show him some respect, too."
Murray has a better record against Federer (nine wins and eight defeats) than against Berdych, who has won four of their six meetings. The 27-year-old Czech won their most recent encounter, on clay in Monte Carlo, though Murray won the last time they met on an outdoor hard court.
Berdych strikes the ball as hard as anybody and his ability to deny Murray time has knocked the Scot out of his stride in some of their past meetings. "He's a huge, huge hitter of the ball," Murray said. "Even if you want to dictate points and be aggressive, he can take that away from you because he's such a powerful guy. You need to be smart against him. You need to use good variation and try not to give him the same ball over and over, because he likes that."
Facts in figures
61 Games he has lost at this US Open. Berdych has lost 64.
£13m The amount of prize-money Murray has won so far in his career.
4 Murray has lost four of six matches against Tomas Berdych.
7 Semi-finals reached by Murray in his last eight Grand Slams.