NEW YORK—After Andy Murray started his quarterfinal match with Marin Cilic down 0-3, hitting zero winners, committing six errors, and winning only three points, a fan in Louis Armstrong Stadium shouted: “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. Come on, Andy!”
It took Murray so long to get started, however, his U.S. Open run was nearly finished. After spotting Cilic a 6-3, 5-2 (two-break) lead, Murray finally roused from his listless slumber. He started pouncing on every Cilic second serve and stretching his opponent from corner to corner. Murray’s doggedness, absent for most of the first two sets, reappeared as he stopped handing Cilic freebies on break points. There were some hangdog looks, an abused racquet, and plenty of wincing after misses, but Murray toughed his way to the semifinals with a 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2, 6-0 win.
The last time these two met at the U.S. Open (2009, fourth round) Cilic routed Murray, then the No. 2 seed, in straight sets for his only victory over Murray in seven career meetings. Through 16 games this match looked every bit the sequel. The match hinged on Cilic’s service game at 5-4 in the second set. A hold would mean a two-set lead and a mighty ornery Murray. Two sloppy Cilic ground stroke errors and a double fault gave Murray a 0-40 cushion. Cilic reversed the score, stringing together three strong points to pull to deuce. Murray took early control of the next point to earn the advantage. Cilic turned generous once again with another double fault to gift the break.
At 5-5 Murray held, obliging Cilic to serve to stay in the set. All seemed lost for the 12th seed, but he managed to force the tiebreaker. Better yet, he got out to a 4-2 lead. But he tightened up, Murray dug in, and the next five points went to the Scot. At just shy of two hours on court, the match was tied at one set apiece. But it was over. It only took two routine sets and a handshake to make it official.
For a man of 6'6", Cilic has a remarkably unreliable first serve. In his third-round win over Kei Nishikori he finished at just 46 percent first serves in play. Today that stat was 53 percent, with two aces versus six double faults. Maybe his severe knee bend makes him smaller, but at his size the shot should be a bigger asset. When he’s connecting, as he did in the first set (70 percent), it makes his whole game flow. He holds easily and can be aggressive with his returns. But when he’s relying on his second serve it becomes difficult for Cilic to get on top of the baseline to control rallies. He plays too much on his heels and his loopy, bullwhip forehand, so dangerous on the attack, becomes a liability when forced to defend. That was the side Murray went after when he needed a point.
Murray has now reached the semifinals in seven of the last eight Slams. He will face the winner of Tomas Berdych and Murray’s summer sparring partner, Roger Federer; Federer took Wimbledon and Murray returned the favor at the Olympics. Berdych will certainly have something to say about it, but no one would complain if we get treated to the tiebreaker.