It took Andy Murray over four years to be able to upend the great Roger Federer at a major, but he pulled it off in brilliant fashion, overcoming the Swiss 6-4 6-7(5) 6-3 6-7(2) 6-2 in exactly four hours to earn himself a meeting with top seed Novak Djokovic in Sunday night’s final.
In an extremely physical and complicated contest between two of the game’s smartest tacticians on a brisk Friday evening , Murray was able to emotionally regroup after he failed to serve the match out at 6-5 in the fourth set.
More fit than he was three years ago when Federer bested him in the Melbourne final and certainly mentally tougher after his standout 2012, when he won the Olympic gold medal as well as his first major at the US Open, Murray played an airtight fifth set, winning 16 of his 19 service points and pouncing on his foe’s serves during his return games.
He won the contest when a seemingly exhausted Federer – who has just come of a brutal five-set win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Wednesday night’s quarterfinal – flew a forehand long.
“I’ve obviously lost some tough matches against him in Slams,” Murray said. “So to win one, especially the way that it went tonight, was obviously nice. I’m sure both of us will play each other again in Slams, so it will help having won once against him.”
One of the world’s most accurate returners, Murray immediately began to get on Federer’s serve in the first set and broke him to 2-1 when he forced him into a forehand error. While Murray was in command of numerous baseline rallies as he played deep and with precision, Federer had trouble breaking down the Scot’s defensive wall, even with his ferocious forehand.
Murray won the first set when he crushed a forehand that Federer could only push back into the net, and then he hit a serve down the T that the Swiss couldn’t handle.
Both men upped their levels in the second set and engaged in a number of long and intriguing rallies from inside the baseline. The Swiss tried to break down Murray’s weaker forehand side, while the Scot went at Federer’s backhand. They traded speeds and spins, charged forward on and off, and defended stoutly.
However, the 25-year-old Murray still seemed to have a slight edge in rallies until they went into the tiebreaker. Murray inexplicably blew three straight forehands to go down 1-3, but then he managed to claw back to 5-5. However, while approaching the net, Murray had to leap high in the air to hit a forehand volley and he bounced it short, which allowed Federer to paste a backhand crosscourt winner. He then committed a forehand error, and the Swiss grabbed the set.
Six months ago in the Wimbledon final, Murray had won the first set and was ahead in the second before Federer grabbed it 7-5 and then blitzed him in the next two sets. But the Australian Open is not played on grass, and Murray is more secure on outdoor hard courts. Once again, he was the player consistently controlling the action.
He broke Federer to 3-2 and never looked back, winning the third set by stepping to his left and crushing a forehand down the line and then booming an ace.
But Federer hasn’t managed to win a record 17 Grand Slams for nothing, and with his back against the wall, the 31-year-old showed all of his champion’s mettle.
Murray won a very tense 10-minute game to tie the set 4-4, and he was clearly pumped up, bellowing at the top of his lungs.
At 5-5, he broke the Swiss to love with a forehand crosscourt winner and looked to be in the driver’s seat when, trying to serve the match out at 6-5, he hit a gorgeous forehand down the line and smiled in delight, appearing to believe that he was well on his way to victory.
Federer did not take kindly to the grin and his game rose in response. He yelled something Murray’s way.
“Stuff like that happens daily in tennis matches,” Murray said.
“In sport, the stuff that some people say on football pitches and in basketball and all sorts of sports … it was very, very mild in comparison to what happens in other sports. It’s just one of those things.”
Down 15-30, Federer nailed an overhead at Murray’s body and then walloped a one-handed backhand down the line winner behind Murray that kissed the outside of the line to gain a break point. A shaky Murray then blew an easy forehand crosscourt, and a second tiebreaker was on.
Brimming with confidence, Federer flew through the breaker, nailing a series of winners and then watching Murray miss two returns he would normally handle.
But Murray is no longer the same player who broke down in tears after Federer beat him in straight sets in the 2010 Melbourne final, and he quickly broke Federer to 2-0 when the Swiss framed a backhand long.
While waiting for Federer to come back on court between sets, he tried to think what he had done in a positive fashion to get to that point and focused on doing it immediately.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” he said.
“The only thing you can do is play the right way, go for your shots when the opportunity’s there, and hope that it pays off. At any stage he can increase his level and your level can dip, especially in a four-hour match. You just need to try and be focused for as much of the match as possible. The beginning of the fifth set was the part of the match that I was most pleased with.”
From that point on, Federer looked like he had lost a bit of speed off the ground, and he couldn’t touch Murray on his service games.
Serving at 2-5,15-30, the four-time Australian Open champion saw Murray blast a forehand return winner that he didn’t even bother to chase down. He managed to fight off one match point with a serve winner, but then he missed an easy groundstroke to hand the Scot the match.
“I did a good job tonight,” Murray said. “I think I did all the things I needed to do. I did them well. Even after the second and fourth sets, which were tough to lose, because I wasn’t comfortable, but I was in good positions in both sets. To lose them was tough. I was just happy with the way I responded after both those sets.”
Murray will play two-time defending champion Djokovic in the final. The Serbian bested him in five sets in the 2012 Australian semis, but Murray got revenge in the same number of sets at the US Open.
It promises to be a classic.
“I hope it’s a painful match,” said Murray, who finished the match with 62 winners to 43 from Federer.
“That means it’ll be a good one.”