MELBOURNE—At around 7:15 P.M. Friday, a few minutes before Roger Federer followed Andy Murray down from the locker room and onto the court, it looked like Rod Laver Arena had been been given an upgrade. Compared to earlier evenings here, the light was more atmospheric, the temperature was more comfortable, the crowd was better looking, the clothes were sharper, the VIPs were actually famous. Greg Norman was here, and the stadium's namesake sat in the front row with a full complement of legends surrounding him. A few rows back was the obligatory celebrity tennis fanatic. This time, though, it wasn’t Anna Wintour or Gavin Rossdale or the Prince of Wales who had jetted in to pay homage to the Maestro. It was American actor Kevin Spacey, who is a....Murray fan? Here was a sign, if anyone needed it, that the guard was changing in men’s tennis, right? The groupies are always the first to know.
“Generational shift” may be the storyline that comes out of the 25-year-old Murray’s 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-2 win over the 31-year-old Federer in the semifinals tonight. I agree that it's possible, but mainly from the Murray side. Even more so than his Olympic and U.S. Open wins, in this match it felt like we were seeing Muzz come into his own and play the type of tennis—varied, but with a core of aggression—that he’s been hinting at and working toward since he was a teenager.
On the Federer side, the verdict is less clear. On the one hand, he’s supposedly been on the wrong side of every changing of the guard since he lost to Rafael Nadal in the 2008 Wimbledon final, yet Federer was still there this evening, in the semis of the Australian Open, running down balls that few other players of any age could catch. On the other hand, he was decisively out-served by his younger opponent; Murray himself said, “the serve is normally the first to go when guys get to the end of their career.” Federer also went away completely in the final set, and there were moments when he looked like an aging legend hanging on by his fingernails, relying on desperation gets and clutch tiebreaker play.
Those fingernails proved amazingly resilient, though, especially at the climactic end of the fourth set, when Murray served for the match and looked ready to take his place in the final. Federer, with his back to the wall, barked and cursed at Murray; see him yell "You f---in' stopped!" at Muzz here, after Murray hesitated on a close call in the middle of a point. More imporant, Federer spun and dove for some of the most flatly amazing returns and retrievals in a career that has included thousands of them. He broke Murray at 5-6 and rolled through the following tiebreaker.
Asked what Federer had yelled at him before he broke his serve, Murray said, “It's not relevant. It didn’t rattle me. I think he raised his game ... Sometimes guys need to get emotion into the match. It’s something that happens [in a] one-on-one sort of individual combat.”
Federer, the old lion, had roared, and it was a fearsome sight. But that wasn’t a level he could sustain for an entire set, let alone a match. Reality, in the form of Murray’s methodically superior play, set in again in the fifth.
And that's what this match was about, Murray's methodically superior play. While he was customarily blasé about it later—asked whether he had ever served better, Murray shrugged and said, “I don’t know”—it was one of the very best performances of his career. He hit 21 aces, created 16 break point chances, and cracked 62 winners against 47 errors. Federer’s stats were the reverse: 43 winners against 60 errors. Only his brilliance in the breakers made this one close.
Before the match, Federer had said that he missed the days when Murray sat back and rallied passively, because those felt like chess matches. He also must miss them because Murray is so much harder to beat now that he’s going after the ball. Murray signaled which version of him had showed up tonight on the second point of the match, which he won by taking a hanging mid-court ball and smacking an inside-out forehand past Federer. In the biggest sign of the changing times for Murray, he would finish the match with 21 forehand winners to Federer’s 18.
Murray has gained muscle, in his legs and upper body; his shots have more weight, and from up close he even appeared to be moving faster and getting to balls earlier, which has always been a strength of his. The biggest change was that Murray played and acted like a guy with a bomb serve in his back pocket. He was free to take chances and pick his spots in his return games. Murray broke Federer six times; it could have been more.
Not that any of this seemed to impress Muzz, who wavered between low-key and annoyed in his press conference afterward.
Asked if he was in control, he said, "I wouldn’t say I dominated the match. Didn’t necessarily feel that way."
Asked if it was satisfying, he said, “Yeah, I mean, it’s satisfying, obviously.”
Asked if he drew on his U.S. Open victory, he snorted and said, “No, I wasn’t thinking about that.”
Asked if having won a Slam final would make this one easier, he said: “I mean, I have no idea. I’ll obviously see when I get on the court.”
Asked a little later if he was being so subdued because he “still had one big step to go,” Murray still refused to bite: “Umm, no, I don’t think it’s just cause of that.”
Murray did allow one thing about tonight’s performance: “I thought I did a good job,” he said. He took pride in how he bounced back after losing those tough second and fourth sets. And he was right, those were impressive moments. There was whining and there was cursing, but there was no sense from Murray that he lost any belief.
It was left to Federer to give a broader assessment of what Murray had done better than he had.
“I think overall he probably created more chances than I did,” Federer said. “I had difficulty getting into his service games time and time again ... He played a bit more aggressive because he did create more opportunities over and over.”
As for himself, Federer said, “Nothing has changed ... I go from here with a good feeling for the year. I obviously know where my level is at.”
Murray’s transformation with his coach, Ivan Lendl, has been gradual, even subtle. He’ll always be a counterpuncher, but tonight he won with a mix of offense and defense. If his serve can continue in this vein, the transformation may be as complete as it's going to get.
Novak Djokovic, Murray’s opponent in the final, threw down a gauntlet with his demolition of David Ferrer on Thursday night. But was Murray’s semifinal performance the better one? He very nearly won five consecutive sets from Roger Federer—who has ever done that? I’ll still take Djokovic in the final, but things got closer tonight.
Kevin Spacey flew to Melbourne just for this match. I’m guessing he’ll stick around until Sunday. We'll see if he knows something.