Five thoughts from Andy Murray's rollicking 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-2 win over Roger Federer in the Australian Open semifinals on Friday ...
1. Another Murray landmark. Murray has won a Grand Slam title as well as an Olympic gold medal in the past several months. Yet you could make the case that Friday marked Murray's third breakthrough performance.
In five tremendously entertaining and hard-fought sets, Murray beat Federer for the first time in four attempts at a major with an effort that combined exquisite tennis with exquisite composure. He stepped to the baseline and served ace after ace, 21 to Federer's five, winning dozens of quick-and-easy points. He outplayed his opponent from the baseline, unleashing defense that was downright Djokovician, making Federer play extra balls. He volleyed, he sliced, he teed off on returns, he changed pace and, as always, made few tactical mistakes. He kept his poise under the most tense circumstances imaginable (see below).
For the first time all tournament, Murray dropped a set. But, in outlasting Federer in a five-set classic, Murray recorded one of the true signature wins of his career.
"Maybe there's just a little bit more belief, or he's a bit more calm overall," Federer said. "It seems like he has more peace when he plays out there, and in the process he has better results."
NGUYEN: Highlights, reaction from Murray-Federer
2. Federer's future. What do we make of Federer at this point? The career undertakers will be out in full force. ("He hasn't won a Slam off grass in three years!") For all the talk of his slippage, his losing battle in the fight against time, don't attribute this result to age (31, by the way). Federer was outplayed and played some loose points when it mattered most, but it wasn't because of fatigue or bald tires.
Federer's serve wasn't the weapon it usually is, precluding him from winning cheap points. He played too cautiously on Murray's service games. He tried a few ill-advised drop shots. The conditions -- downright chilly and windy at times -- favored the player from Scotland. But, disappointing a result as this was, it doesn't owe to age. He just lost to an exceptional player who played exceptionally well.
WERTHEIM: Azarenka into final with dubious gamesmanship
3. Keep Calm and Carry On. At 5-5 in the second-set tiebreaker, Federer hit a lob that was headed well beyond the baseline. It would have set up set point for Murray -- except that Murray leaped and, unaccountably, took a smack at the ball. Federer chased down the awkward overhead and zinged a backhand winner. A point later, Federer won the set.
At another point of his career, this would have triggered Murray's demise. He would have glowered at his box, berated himself and worn his I-just-ate-vegemite face. Same when Federer scored a break in the fourth set. Same when Murray lost challenge after challenge. Same when Federer had a few choice words for Murray. Same when Murray couldn't serve out the match in the fourth set.
"I've been questioned for large parts of my career about physically would I be strong enough; mentally would I be strong enough; do I listen to my coaches, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah -- whatever it is, can I handle pressure," Murray said.
In 2013? With a major in his catalogue of achievements? There was no negative body language. Murray recovered again and again. He kept pounding the ball and restoring order, imposing his will. Murray's serve was his MVA -- most valuable attribute. But his improved attitude (thanks, coach Ivan Lendl) gets high marks, too.
"I wouldn't say I dominated," Murray said. "I did all the things I needed to do."
4. Team of rivals. Rafael Nadal is many miles away, playing poker, preparing for a comeback and, empirically anyway, no longer a member of the Big Four. Federer has won one of the last 12 majors he's entered (Wimbledon 2012, obviously). On the other hand, either (and sometimes both) Djokovic or Murray has been in the final of the last seven, plus the Olympics. But before we talk about new rivalries and Djokovic-Murray replacing Federer-Nadal, why don't we simply celebrate this four-way rivalry?
"Nothing has changed," Federer said of the Big Four rivalry. "Keep on trading wins and losses."
It's a precipitous drop to the next level. And no matter the combinations and permutations, the Big Four give us storylines and sensational tennis in equal measure. No matter how the plot breaks, it's relevant and interesting and fits into a bigger narrative. Had Federer won on Friday? He gets Djokovic, the current No. 1 and defending champ. Murray wins this match? He gets a rematch against the man he beat in New York, a player born a few days apart.
"The task isn't any easier," Murray said. "This has been [Djokovic's] best court."
Only one player wins these matches. But, with this team of rivals pushing each other and elevating the sport, fans win no matter what.
5. Surveying the wreckage. In other news ... at least until the men's match started, Friday was still dominated by Hurricane Vika and the fallout from Thursday's breach in etiquette. Or as Sloane Stephens' coach termed it to the USA Today, "cheating within the rules." Social media was still putting Victoria Azarenka through the spanking machine for her controversial medical timeout in the second set of her victory against Stephens in the semifinals. The ESPN crew -- yes, we will preempt the angry mail and acknowledge they are American, as is Stephens -- continued their criticism as well.
"Azarenka's Timeout Jeered Round the World" even made the front page of The New York Times. The top seed practiced late Friday afternoon, but not before conducting some damage control in TV interviews. This is not exactly optimal preparation for playing for a Grand Slam title. She doesn't seem to mind the black hat, but it will be interesting to see how this plays out Saturday. She will be a heavy underdog to Li Na with the crowd. Will this galvanize her? Or will it -- and the whole mishigas of the last few days -- throw her off her game? This we predict with some certitude: She ain't leaving the court during the match.
Azarenka called out after questionable timeout
Besides Azarenka's questionable timeout at the end of the match, I noticed this: When her serve hits the net, the shriek immediately stops. How does the exertion resulting from the serve change based on what happens after it?-- Brian Highland, San Diego
? Let's just say that the PR team will earn its keep this event. On a lighter note, Azarenka went to her press conference wearing a Nike T-shirt reading "Kiss My Fast," not exactly the uniform most of us would chose were we are trying to project humility and perhaps even remorse. Innumerable stories and video clips about Azarenka -- all unflattering -- now picture her in that Nike shirt. I'm envisioning the Nike rep beforehand saying, "You know, Victoria, now we usually like you to wear our clothes in public? I think that today, a turtleneck would be great. The Adidas one."
I find these "medical timeouts" to be a blight on tennis. They ruin the intensity of the match being played, since inevitably, these timeouts happen in only close matches. I would like to say that medical timeouts should be eliminated completely but maybe instead there should be a disincentive. What if when a player uses a medical timeout, his or her opponent is automatically given a point?-- Alana, Brooklyn, N.Y.
? The WTA has been conspicuously quiet here. Neil Harman tweeted: "I'm afraid it underlines once more the sheer lack of strong officials in the sport backed up by weak leadership." I think that pretty much sums it up. Until the grown-ups care a little more about the fans and a little less about making sure their relationship is such that they can cajole them to attend a sponsor party, abuses will occur. Same with grunting. At some point you say, "This is bad for business. If we need to change the rules, so be it."
Will David Ferrer ever get past the semifinals of a Grand Slam? It seems somehow unfair that players like Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin del Potro, Robin Soderling and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have gotten to play in a final and Ferrer has not.-- Al, Brooklyn, N.Y.
? You need real weapons to beat the Big Four. You're not going to grind them down.
How pro-Li/anti-Azarenka do you think the crowd will be during the final, considering it's the Asia-Pacific Slam and Azarenka's unsportmanslike antics?-- Nancy Ng, Montreal, Canada
? I wrote this on Thursday: Li won a lot of fans in the first match. She won a lot more in the second match.
Do you agree that Li gives the best interviews of the current players? Particularly impressive since English is not her first language. This exchange with the press about the Tsonga comments on women's matches makes me laugh out loud:
Q. You don't think hormones have anything to do with it; you think it's more about tennis?
LI NA: Sorry about that. Now I'm only interesting about tennis. Maybe when I retire I'm thinking about the hormones one day.
Q. Do you have a theory on why there's sort of upsets at the top level in the women's game as opposed to the men?
LI NA: I mean, if I'm retire, I will go to university to learn this thing and I can answer you.-- Jere Diersing, San Diego
? To quote Li Na: "I am agree."
The 2012 French Open was no outlier -- Maria Sharapova got an easy draw and took full advantage of it. Gotta love the media for hyping up Sharapova to sell papers. And when she eventually runs into a quality player, she gets her clock cleaned. Can we agree that Sharapova is great at bullying lower-ranked players but deer-in-headlights against the top girls?-- James S. Scarsdale, N.Y.
? Dude, she's won all four majors and dropped nine games in her first five matches. Hardly think the media is to blame here for daring to suggest she was a contender. That said, yes, her draw was soft and, yes, she has lost a number of high-stakes matches lately.
I assume you saw this. Excellent information gathering by one of your fellow writers.-- Dart Jackson, Atlanta