As a confessed fan of boxing, Andy Murray must have known the old maxim: You don’t beat the champ in a decision, you have to knock him out. If Murray was unaware of that, he learned it tonight in a rugged, grueling, five-set Australian Open semifinal with Roger Federer, the all-time leader in men's singles Grand Slam titles.
Fighting all the way, Federer refused to bend to the wind of Murray’s 21 aces (to Federer’s five) and 62 winners (to Federer’s 43) until the very end. The Swiss star never ran out of heart, he just ran out of steam, as Murray won in exactly four hours, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-2.
Going into this one, Murray had never beaten Federer in a Grand Slam match, and for a long period—even when Murray was playing well—it looked as if he never might. Case in point: Crushing his serve and establishing his superiority over Federer in cross-court, backhand-to-backhand rallies, Murray dominated Federer in the first set. He continued to set the pace in the second, albeit with Federer constantly sniping and lurking, awaiting his chance to turn the tables. He had to wait until the tiebreaker to do that, but Federer in this match was nothing if not patient.
In that second-set tiebreaker, Murray won the first point but made two critical forehand errors to fall behind 1-2; they fell like a bar of light across the floor when a door has been cracked open, and gave Federer all the wiggle room he need to pull even. Murray did fight his way back into it, and nudged the score to 5-all with another serve to come. But he botched the ensuing point with the most cringe-inducing point of this otherwise fine match: He leaped to smash away a Federer lob that was destined to land somewhere in the adjacent railyard, but mishit it. Federer then drilled a backhand passing shot past Murray to earn set point, which he won thanks to a forehand error by his distracted rival.
So after two sets in which Federer had achieved but one measly break point (compared to Murray’s six), the match was deadlocked.
Credit Murray for maintaining his poise—and that booming serve—after that dispiriting tiebreaker. In the third set, Murray wasted an early break point but took advantage of a momentary lapse by Federer in the sixth game. Murray leaped out to a 0-40 lead against the four-time Aussie Open champion’s serve in that one. Federer wiped away the first break point, but then played a backhand down the line a mite casually—call him anything, but don’t call him “lazy”—and missed it. Murray pocketed the break for 4-2 and fired off a series of aces and service winners to hold. He went on to serve out the set.
The fireworks broke out in the fourth set, just when it looked like Murray might be cruising to the finish line. Murray, who had yet to be broken, was making Federer pay dearly for his unwillingness to back up a little when receiving first serves, and also for his failure to attack what second serves he did see. Federer has never felt obliged to attack an opponent’s serve, mainly because his all-around game is so strong. But in this match, he paid for that career-long habit.
Federer finally recorded a break, two hours and 45 minutes unto the match, with Murray serving at 1-2. He consolidated the break for a 4-1 lead, but Murray pounced in the seventh game, breaking Federer thanks mainly to an ill-advised drop shot on a night that was brimming with them. That made it 30-all, and a volley error by Federer followed by an inside-out forehand winner sealed the break, with Murray to serve at 3-4.
The next game was another see-saw battle, but Murray held for 4-all, and he went on to break Federer for a 6-5 lead, meaning he would serve for the match. But Federer, cornered and dangerous as ever, struck like a cobra. He appeared to have words for Murray after the Scot won the first point with a terrific forehand pass; the uncharacteristic outburst of gamesmanship appeared to rattle Murray, for he lost the next four points in a row to launch the tiebreaker.
Once again, Murray’s nerve failed in the tiebreaker the way it did not in his service games. With Federer ahead 3-2, Murray lost two service points to go down 2-5 and never won another point. It was hard to believe, but the match was dead even despite the edge Murray had in every statistical department that matters. Yet Murray had forced Federer to pay more than he could for being unable to capitalize on that early break to lock up the fourth set, and it seemed to make all the difference in the world.
Thus, the fifth set proved anti-climactic after a strong Murray hold in the first game. Showing the fatigue of having to play his second straight five-set match, Federer’s legs turned to jelly as he made error after error and surrendered an easy break in the second game. Ordinarily, and especially earlier in this match, that seemed not to be an insurmountable deficit. But Federer was spent, probably mentally as much a physically, and Murray coasted across the finish line.