Now comes the real test: Andy Murray playing Roger Federer for a place in the semi-finals of the Australian Open. Now Murray will see just how far he has travelled down the comeback trail from back surgery and now he can judge just where he stands against his nearest rivals.
Murray booked his place in the quarter-finals with a frustrating 6-1, 6-2, 6-7, 6-2 win over the little known Stephane Robert, the world No 119 and a journeyman of many years standing. And it was a match he was controlling easily until he took his eye off the ball. A brief lapse in concentration as he served for the match got him involved in a messy tiebreak, which he lost, but after smashing his racket and clearing his head, he was back on track for the Federer showdown.
The last time the two met was in the semi-finals here last year and Murray won in five sets to give him an 11-9 career lead over the mighty Swiss. But so much happened since that night: Federer, plagued by back problems, enduring his worst season in years, and Murray going on to win Wimbledon before succumbing to back problems of his own. This month is a new beginning for both of them and neither is quite sure what to expect.
“I’ve played him, I don’t know, around 20 times, I think,” Murray said. “I know how you need to play against him, tactically things that work and things that don’t work.
“Obviously last year is pretty relevant because it’s on the same court and it will be under the same conditions. But in an individual sport, any day is a new day. Anything can happen.
“You know, you play 10 per cent below your best, you can be off the court quickly. So whether my tactics are great or not, I need to play a great match to win.”
Federer marched into the quarter-finals with a stunning 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga yesterday. After spending the past 12 months reading his obituary in the papers every time he lost a match, he was like a man reborn against the Frenchman. His movement was excellent, his tactics were perfect and his execution was without fault. He struck 43 clean winners and won 38 points at the net – this was Federer in his pomp.
With that sort of performance under his belt, the Swiss, now ranked a relatively lowly No 6 in the world, was feeling extremely pleased with himself. As a result, he was relishing the opportunity to take on Murray one more time. Both making comebacks in different ways, tomorrow’s match will be the perfect test for both of them.
“I think we’re both coming into this match with a good feeling,” Federer said. “We’re both coming into this match, though, with some doubts slightly. I don’t know how he’s feeling. I haven’t seen him play much, to be quite honest.
“What I’m hearing is that he’s fine. That’s very positive. That’s what I was hoping for Andy, that when he did come back, he was 100 per cent, not halfway, limping, not feeling great. It’s good to see he took care of his draw, and here we are again. I’m looking forward to the match, I must say.”
During those dark days last year for the Swiss, Murray had watched the great man with interest. The old boy may not have been at his best but the Scot had no doubt that Federer could not be written off. The Swiss is 32 years old but he is still one of the greatest players ever to have played the sport – that doesn’t go away with a handful of grim losses.
“Four, five years ago he was losing like three matches a year; it was ridiculous,” Murray said. “You could count them on your hand how many matches he was losing during the year. The last couple years he’s lost a little bit more. But I think last year you could see at periods he was struggling with his back. And if he’s fully fit, I’ve said all along, he’s always going to be there or thereabouts in the majors, and he’ll give himself opportunities to win more because he’s that good.”
Murray thought he had given himself enough opportunities to win in straight sets against Robert yesterday. For the first hour and a half, all was well and then, from match point up, it all started to unravel. He double faulted on the first match point, saw three more slip from his grasp and then, when Robert called for a Hawk-Eye challenge on set point – and, yes, Murray’s forehand was out – the fury bubbled over. The racquet took the full force of his ire and the Scot had to start all over again in the fourth set.
“I dominated 95 per cent of the match, and for 15 minutes didn’t close the match out,” he said. “I was one point away from being in the locker room. But I still created chances, even when I wasn’t playing so well at the end of that third set. And then the fourth set was fairly comfortable. I put a lot of hard work into that third set. I maybe lost concentration when I served for it. In the tiebreak I didn’t lose concentration, I just missed a couple of shots. Losing that set was frustrating because it obviously means you’re out there another 30, 40 minutes at least, when I would preferably had been in the locker room.
“My racquet bit the dust. Unfortunate for it. But I was glad I managed to start well in the fourth.”
On the bald evidence of yesterday’s matches, Murray would appear to have a mountain to climb if he is to beat the rejuvenated Federer on Wednesday. Then again, Murray returns better than Tsonga and he will enjoy the chance to pass the Swiss if, under the influence of his new advisor Stefan Edberg, Federer tries to play his more aggressive game. To take on the former champion on the main show court in a night match ought to bring the best from Murray. No matter that he has only been back on the road again for three weeks, playing the big boys on the big stages is what Murray lives for: this is the real test and Murray is eager to know if he is ready for it.