ANDRE Agassi called it before a ball had been hit in earnest. This was going to be Andy Murray’s year. The great, bald sage called the semi-final, too – Murray in four.
He was a set out on that prediction but Scotland’s finest will forgive him that. Murray was happy to take a win in five sets over Roger Federer.
Throughout his career, the pundits had predicted that Murray could win a grand slam, that he could challenge the men at the top of the game, but words are cheap. What matters now is that Murray truly believes he can be the best. He has the proof. The results sheet shows that he is the man on the rise.
This morning, Murray will face Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open final, his third consecutive grand slam final. Of the Gang of Four who dominate the sport, no one can match that level of consistency. Djokovic lost to Federer in the semi-finals at Wimbledon and the US Open final to Murray while Federer won Wimbledon but lost to Tomas Berdych in the quarter-finals of the US Open. And he took a pounding from Murray in Melbourne on Friday. As for Rafael Nadal, no one has seen him since the second round of Wimbledon, thanks to yet another knee injury.
“I think it’s probably my best achievement,” Murray said. “I know how hard it is to get to the later stages of grand slams. So, with the level of competition that is there just now, it’s one of my better achievements.”
But it is winning these finals that counts and Murray is growing in belief and confidence with every tournament. His focus and control throughout the four hours of Friday’s match were signs of a man at the top of his game, both mentally and physically. There were no lapses, no moments of doubt. That Federer extended the encounter to five sets was simply proof of the fact that the 17-times grand slam champion is still one hell of a player.
Now Murray has it all to do again against the world No.1. He knows from experience that the match will be long and it will be exhausting but he also knows he can win it. It took him five painful hours in New York but he did it – he beat Djokovic to win the trophy. And that memory might carry him over the line today.
“You never know how you are going to feel on the day,” Murray said, “but my results over the past year suggest I have played some of my best tennis in the bigger matches at the slams and the Olympics.
“That’s all you can do, obviously you’re not going to win all of them but, more often than not, I’m now giving myself chances to win these events every time I play them. That’s the thing that changes from winning big matches. You get used to it and have that extra bit of belief each time you go on the court. What Novak did a couple of years ago set the bar and what Roger and Rafa were doing for five or six years set the standard. It’s been up to everyone else to catch up and I think I’ve done a good job for the last year or so.”
Djokovic will have been delighted to see his two old rivals scrapping away late into the night on Friday. Thanks to the scheduling in Melbourne, his swift three set, semi-final thrashing of David Ferrer was played on Thursday giving the Serb an extra day off before today’s match. But Murray takes such inequalities in his stride these days. He worked long and hard over the Christmas break to be ready for this tournament and his run to the semi-finals was straightforward enough – there is plenty left in his tank.
He has lost his last two meetings with Djokovic and trails 7-10 in their career rivalry. But, when they have met in finals, Murray leads with four wins to three, although when it comes to grand slam finals, the two men are equal with one trophy apiece. Pick the bones out of that.
The courts in Melbourne suit Djokovic to a T. He is trying to win his third consecutive title and his fourth in all. If he succeeds, he will be the only man in the open era to rack up an Australian hat-trick. Then again, Murray has always felt at home in Melbourne. This is his third final here and, should he win today, he will become the only man in the open era to back up his maiden grand slam win at the next major championship.
When it comes to the stats and figures, there is barely a fag paper between the two men at the moment and today’s result will come down to belief. And now that Murray has finally beaten Federer in a grand slam and has had the beating of Djokovic over five sets at the US Open, that confidence is plain to see.
“Last year when I played Novak here [in the semi-finals], that match was important for the rest of my career,” Murray said. “But it could have been the match that changed things had I come through it. It just took a little bit longer because I lost. But that match was the start of my year and the understanding of how close I was if I just improved a few things. Obviously, having won in five sets against Roger and Novak in slams is something I hadn’t done before. With Novak, our game styles mean we play a lot of long rallies and close points. Both of us return very well and it’s tough to get free points on serve. Every time we played last year they were really tough matches.
“The last few months have been the best of my career. Provided I can recover and get myself as healthy as possible, it should be a good match.”
Agassi has made no predictions for today’s final but the wise old sage knows that Murray is ready to make the coming season his own.