MELBOURNE, Australia -- Three quick thoughts after watching Roger Federer advance to the semifinals of the 2014 Australian Open with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-7, 6-3 win over Andy Murray.
• When a small group of us met with Stefan Edberg last week, he explained he was working with Federer to "challenge him mentally," -- the vaguest terms possible. Could Federer get back to where he once belonged? Sure, Edberg, predictably replied, provided Federer was aggressive and believed in himself. It sounded like so much coach-speak pablum.
But through five rounds of the Australian Open, let's take inventory. Mentally, it's possible that Federer has never been sharper -- he's been hitting the ball immaculately and eliminating the lapses that plagued his game last year. He has been broken twice all tournament, lowest of any player left in the draw. His average service game has lasted less than two minutes. (For comparison, Nadal's service games last 3:13.) Aggressive? Federer has been pasting his backhand, taking calculated risks on returns and making the net a second home for himself.
Tonight was no exception. He came to the net 66 times over four sets, winning 49 of those points -- 74 percent. He's been dripping with confidence, and why not, given his astronomical level at this event. At 5-4 in the third set, with a chance to serve out the match, Federer blinked and was broken. Unencumbered by the doubts that would plague so many others at the time, he recovered and forced a tiebreaker. Then he squandered two match points in the breaker. Again, undeterred, he won in the fourth set.
"I try to keep my composure and try to keep the poker face," he said afterwards. "I'm much higher [confidence-wise] than I was last year and that's satisfying."
It's the Fedberg effect? It's the new, 98-inch racket? It's the new clean bill of health? Whatever, Federer's present has reconnected with his past at this tournament.
• Not unlike the aftermath of Novak Djokovic's and Stanislas Wawrinka's quarterfinal match yesterday, exuberance over the excellence of a Swiss player is tempered a wee bit by concern over the defeated player. A year ago, Murray beat Federer here in a high-quality match that saw Murray overpower Federer and play a superior match mentally. Since then, Murray's and Federer's paths couldn't have been more different. With Murray having won a Grand Slam and Federer having struggled, one might have predicted a more decisive outcome this year.
Not quite. Apart from Federer's excellence, the Andy Murray of tonight only vaguely resembled the Andy Murray of 2013. There were inexplicable misses. There was some shaky serving. Even in rallies, Murray didn't penetrate the court. He played gamely, pushing the match to four sets, but no matter how you put it, this is a disappointing loss. Whether this is simply was an off-night, whether this was lingering effects of his bad back or whether there's a more existential issue, his results have really tailed off since Wimbledon.
• It became the received wisdom around the time the man turned 30: "A lot has to go right for Federer to win another Major." (Even that sounded charitable. Remember, Federer lost to Lleyton Hewitt a few weeks ago.) Well, here we are with two rounds to go in the Australian Open. Federer has taken care of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray. Novak Djokovic has been eliminated by Wawrinka. Rafael Nadal looms next, but Nadal has a hole in his hand. If that's not "a lot," it sure is more than a little. He still has six sets to win, but Federer... well, let's not get ahead of ourselves.