AT LAST the spotlight is shining on Andy Murray.
Tomorrow he will emerge from the shadows of Melbourne Park and take his place, centre stage, under the floodlights to face Roger Federer in the semi-finals of the Australian Open. Now the serious work can begin.
It is Murray’s first night match so far in the tournament but the feeling is familiar enough. This is his 12th semi-final appearance at a major championship and his 20th meeting with the Swiss (Murray leads their rivalry 10-9). But this time it will be different. This time, Murray is the man who has barely broken a sweat as he has swept through the first five rounds and, this time, Murray knows what it feels like to go on and win a grand slam trophy.
He eased into the last four yesterday with a simple, efficient and impressive 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 win over Jeremy Chardy, the world No 36 from France. After his scratchy and scrappy performances in the last couple of rounds, Murray stepped up a gear and never allowed the gifted Chardy, he of the thumping forehand, a chance to get into the match. It was just what Ivan Lendl, Murray’s impassive coach, would have wanted.
With all that he learned and experienced last summer, from the bitter disappointment of losing the Wimbledon final to the joy of winning Olympic gold and the relief of winning the US Open, the world No 3 can rest a little easier these days during a grand slam run. His trip to Melbourne has not followed the usual, pressured pattern – not a set dropped, not a big name encountered – but these days, such things do not bother him.
“I feel probably a little bit calmer maybe than usual,” Murray said. “But I still have an understanding of how difficult it is to win these events. With the players that are still left in the tournament, it’s going to be a very tough, tough few days if I want to do that. I’ll just stay focused, work hard in my next couple of practice sessions and hope I can finish the tournament well.”
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the man who gave Federer the fright of his life yesterday, certainly thinks that Murray is capable of a big finish here: he is tipping him for the title.
“I think Andy didn’t leave one set I don’t think, didn’t leave one set for the moment, so he’s in a good position,” Tsonga said. “I would say Andy can win.”
And Tsonga ought to know. He kept Federer working and worrying for more than three-and-a-half hours before the Swiss finally managed to book his semi-final berth 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-3. Until yesterday, Federer had looked majestic and all-conquering but, when Tsonga powered his way through the fourth set, the four-time champion was in trouble.
That he came through it was a positive sign but, on the other hand, he has now spent more than two hours longer on court than Murray to get to this stage.
“It was a good match,” Federer said. “I enjoyed it. Could have been four. Could have been three. I could have lost it. So at the end, I’m just happy I wonin five. I would probably rather be in Andy’s shoes. Has he lost a set? I don’t think he has. That’s exactly how you want to approach a semi-final match, in my opinion.
“I’ve played Andy now sometimes in the last sort of six months or a year since he’s won the gold, won the US Open. So I know what to expect; whereas it would be different if I hadn’t played him. Because he has changed his game around a bit. He’s playing more offensive. Obviously he’s a great player.”
As is the way of men’s tennis these days, the top four seeds have all reached their appointed place in the semi-finals. Of them, only Murray has come through the draw unscathed, so unscathed that now the fear is that he may be under-prepared for the challenges ahead of him. To play Federer for the chance to, potentially, play Novak Djokovic in the final is obviously a massive step up in class from the previous rounds.
“I think you have to trust yourself that when you are tested you’re going to play better tennis,” said Murray. “You never know for sure. But, in the buildup to the tournament, I played very well. I haven’t lost a set here yet. So maybe I’m expecting to play too well. But I’ve done a good job so far in this tournament. I can’t be disappointed with where my game’s at. I can’t be disappointed about being in the semis of a slam without dropping a set. That would be silly.”
Murray has never beaten Federer in a grand slam tournament, although the only times they have met have been in finals – and Federer, with his 17 major trophies, is rather good at winning those. This time the pressures are different as there is still plenty of work left to do after Friday’s match. And, having seen how Murray has grown and matured as a player in past 12 months, Federer is taking nothing for granted.
“I don’t go into it with a mindset that I’ve never lost to him in slams,” said the Swiss. “He’s beaten me so many times. He’s beaten me more times than I’ve beaten him. I always enjoyed the match-ups with him because it gets to be very tactical. Wasn’t a straightforward match. He would make you doubt and play very differently to the rest of the guys. I kind of always enjoyed that, when it’s just not every point’s the same. We used to mix it up against each other.
“Now it’s changed a bit because he’s playing more offensive. The rallies aren’t as long and gruelling as they used to be, but we both can do that.”
As Federer was speaking, Murray was safely tucked up in bed back at his hotel. If anyone had thought that the Scot had been put at a disadvantage by the scheduling, by not having experienced the cooler conditions and the glare of the floodlights, Federer was the first to put them right. After a run of night matches, the Swiss has not been to bed before 3am or been up before noon in more than a week. In his view, the schedule has done neither man a favour.
But Murray will have his fair share of late nights from now on if he is to win the title. The last time he played Federer in Melbourne, the Swiss reduced him to tears (the famous quote was: “I can cry like Roger Federer, it’s just a shame I can’t play like him.”) but this time it is different. This time, the spotlight is on Murray. And this time it’s not just Tsonga who is tipping him to win.
MATCH ON BBC
The BBC announced yesterday that it will screen Andy Murray’s Australian Open semi-final against Roger Federer tomorrow live on BBC2 from 8.15am. The match will also be live on BBC Radio 5 live from 8.30am and streamed online on the BBC Sport website.
Saturday’s women’s final and Sunday’s men’s final will both be broadcast live on BBC2 and streamed online.