Sunday 22 October 2017

Murray braced for rejuvenated Federer

Roger Federer is congratulated by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga after advancing to the Australian Open quarter-final
Roger Federer is congratulated by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga after advancing to the Australian Open quarter-final

Simon Briggs in Melbourne

What did Stefan Edberg say to Roger Federer before he took the court yesterday? Something to the effect of "Courage, mon brave," judging by the way Federer kept rushing the net like a dervish.

The question is whether he will be as bold - or as clinical - against Andy Murray tomorrow. There is no such thing as a dull meeting between Federer and Murray, but this one promises to be especially fascinating. If the 2014 Australian Open has been the tournament of the supercoaches, tomorrow will deliver its first superclash.

This quarter-final might almost sound like a reconstruction staged by a historical society, given that Edberg and Ivan Lendl faced off four times in Melbourne, with honours shared at two wins apiece.

In broad terms, their modern charges look to follow the same patterns: Federer coming forward to volley like a more debonair Edberg, Murray pursuing the "power baseline" game Lendl all but invented. But if the outline might be familiar, the staging will be completely different. You might as well compare 'West Side Story' to 'Romeo and Juliet'.

Federer and Murray have moved on significantly since they last met, in the semi-final of this event a year ago.

Federer has not just hired Edberg, but fixed his back trouble and switched to a larger, 98-inch racket, which has been working supremely well for him.

Lendl and company might not want to study yesterday's 6-3 7-5 6-4 victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga too closely, for fear of becoming demoralised. It felt like a flashback to Federer's salad days.

As for Murray, he has not just won Wimbledon but addressed a chronic injury of his own by having an irregular piece of bone shaved off one of his vertebrae. He has returned to the tour with more mobility, particularly on his double-fisted backhand, which is now smoother and more adaptable. The downside is a lack of matches.

DOMINATED

We saw a hint of this when Murray faced Stephane Robert, the first lucky loser to reach the fourth round of the Australian Open, and a man who belongs on a different plane of the sport. As Murray said: "I dominated 95pc of the match." But the other 5pc arrived at an inconvenient moment.

At the end of the third set, Murray had two match points on his own serve at 5-4, and then two more in the tie-break, but allowed them to slip away - costing him an extra half-hour on court.

It was a good thing that in the fourth set his superior conditioning kicked in, as Robert started cramping and Murray - who had comprehensively destroyed one of his rackets just before it started - eased to a 6-1 6-2 6-7 6-2 victory.

"I can't say my expectations are as high as if I'd been playing for the last four months," Murray admitted. "It's been a good effort to get to the quarter-finals of a Slam this soon after surgery. Now I'm not far away from winning the event."

While Murray was happy to ease his way into the tournament, this was not perhaps the ideal preparation for facing Federer - a shot-making genius whose new racket appears to have shaved at least a couple of years off his age. "Roger took the ball very early today, and he was taking my time away," a chastened Tsonga said. "Everything was going quick. He was playing unbelievable."

Tomorrow, the odds must incline towards Federer. "I like playing the best," the Swiss said, sounding more bullish than he has for a while. "And you need to take it to them. You need to play aggressive against the top guys."

Murray has only one win from four Grand Slam meetings with Federer. That came here, in last year's semi-final.

Since then, the great man has been short of form and certainty. But whoever wins, the conclusion will be the same. "He's back." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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