Andy Murray (above) didn't play his best tennis in Friday's semifinal against David Ferrer, but he was just good enough to advance in four sets. (AP)
MELBOURNE, Australia -- This wasn’t Andy Murray’s best night. The fifth-seeded Brit had pretty much been on cruise control until Friday. Few figured his semifinal opponent, seventh-seeded David Ferrer, for a speed bump. That’s not to say Ferrer isn’t a great player; you’d be hard-pressed to find a guy who’s fitter or a fiercer returner. It’s just that his biggest victory to date wasn’t supposed to be.
He never would’ve triumphed over Rafael Nadal if the world No. 1 wasn’t playing on one leg, or so goes the conventional wisdom. Never mind that it was Ferrer’s relentless style of play that had crippled him in the first place.
For a moment it looked as if he had found a second victim in Murray. The Brit had a slight hitch in his giddy-up after his 4-6, 7-6(2), 6-1, 7-6(2) victory over Ferrer at Rod Laver Arena. Murray appeared to injure his quad during the fourth-set tiebreaker. When he reached for his leg and winced after netting a backhand lob return on the game’s fourth point, it wasn’t clear whether he was just beating himself up about the error or simply getting beat up by the Spaniard. After the match he hobbled through the autograph line and gingerly climbed up the center-court corridor steps and back to the dressing room to decompress. “I had just played three hours and 45 minutes,” said Murray, who took two long baths afterward -- one hot, one cold. “[You’re] a bit stiff and sore when the adrenaline wears off of just playing a fourth-set tiebreaker.”
Still, the Spaniard did knock Murray into an early daze, pinning him well behind the baseline and running him from sideline to sideline. When Murray did get stationary hitting opportunities, the result was often a backhand error into the net. (Altogether, he mishit 20 from that wing.) So passive was Murray in the first set -- he came to net just three times in the 10 games -- that you wondered whether his gameplan had been drafted by Caroline Wozniacki. (The top-ranked Dane, who fell to Li Na in her semifinal on Thursday, was a guest in Murray’s box Friday night.)
But in the second frame, Murray found his rhythm. His resolve, as well. He rallied from double-break point down to claim the sixth game. In the 10th he fought off a set point -- first with an ace, then a net volley, then Ferrer gifted him an unforced forehand error -- to level the set at 5-all. “I had my chance in the set point in the second set,” Ferrer said, “but in the important moments he served really well, no?”
That point was one of 68 Murray won on serve, and the comeback jolted the capacity crowd at Laver. The smattering of Brits in attendance jumped in jubilation, as did Wozniacki and the rest of Murray’s camp. But Murray couldn’t work out what all the whooping was about at first. “I thought it was 4-3 in the second set,” he said. “It wasn’t until the umpire called 5-5 that I realized that, yeah, I just saved a set point.”
Like a kid splashing his mate in a pool, Murray’s athletic trainer Jezz Green furiously raised his open hands up and down from his waist in celebration, as if exhorting his charge to keep elevating his game. Once Murray reached the tiebreak, he was at another level. After conceding the first point to Ferrer on a 16-stroke rally, he went on a 6-0 run and clinched the frame with a 114-m.p.h. serve that jammed Ferrer’s backhand.
“I started playing closer to the baseline, taking his time away a little bit,” said Murray, detailing his change in tactics. “I started slicing up the line, changing the pacing of the points, was able to dictate a little bit more with my forehand. I used my backhand down the line well. Just went for my shots a bit more. I came to the net a lot. Finished a lot of points off at the net.
“There was a lot of changes. I was just going for my shots a bit more.”
It was pretty much academic after that. Murray coasted in the third set -- he landed all 17 of his return attempts in play while going 2-for-2 in break-point opportunities -- and hung on for another blowout tiebreaker in the fourth. As comforting as it must be for Murray to lose focus in big match and still win, a lapse in concentration could prove devastating on Sunday against Djokovic. The Serbian, who is 4-3 lifetime against Murray, locked and loaded in his semifinal defeat of Roger Federer, dismissing the defending champion in three sets and three hours.
Another conservative strategy seems like the wrong way to go for Murray, but he’s intent on sticking with what got him to his third career Grand Slam final. “I think tonight I showed that I did what I needed to do to win,” said Murray, sounding as if Wozniacki had prepared his remarks. “I think a lot of the players now are very patient on the court because you can’t just be trying to hit winner because the guys are too fast.” Still, don’t tell that to Djokovic. In the semis against Federer -- a player he described as the tour’s most aggressive just before the match -- Djokovic hit 29 winners against 76 total errors. His likely strategy on Sunday? B-E aggressive, of course. Murray can’t afford another off night.