Murray earns another shot at nemesis Djokovic
When Andy Murray scraped past Radek Stepanek in his opening match of the French Open, he bullishly suggested that his comeback from two sets down "could turn out to be one of the biggest wins of my career".
It is the gift of a great athlete to hang on to such faith amid the doubters. Despite the lowering clouds that have massed over Paris ever since, Murray has blossomed day by day, and yesterday he threw such a gorgeous bouquet of shots at Stan Wawrinka that the reigning champion could only shake his head in admiration.
Murray came away with a razor-sharp 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2 victory, and his reward is not only a first French Open final, but another crack at the man who seems to dog him at every turn: Novak Djokovic, his personal nemesis, and a man who has won 23 of their 33 meetings.
It is true that Djokovic has been contrastingly efficient this fortnight. After brushing past Dominic Thiem yesterday, the world No 1 will go into tomorrow's final with only 12hrs 54mins on the clock to place against Murray's 17hrs 50mins. The statistics tell only part of the story, however.
While both men are seeking their first French Open title, it is Djokovic who has been obsessed by the Coupe des Mousquetaires for years. Not only is this the only major title still to elude him, but he has come up agonisingly short three times, losing twice in the final to Rafael Nadal and then to Wawrinka at the same stage last year. He would hardly be human if he did not wake up tomorrow full of butterflies. For Murray, by contrast, it is a thrilling and unexpected development to be able to take down the best players on clay - rather as if he had suddenly found himself able to breathe under water. It is also a source of great pride. When the on-court interviewer, Marion Bartoli, spoke to him, his voice cracked with emotion.
"A few years ago I was having huge problems with my back on the clay," he said later. "I missed the French Open one year because of it. Eventually I had to have surgery on my back. I made changes to my the training and worked on my flexibility to try to help my rotation, which you need a lot on the clay. Now I'll have a chance to play in all four slam finals. It means a lot to me. It's not an easy thing to do these days with the players that are around."
Wawrinka has been one of those obstacles, a man with dynamite in his racquet who can blast winners from the most unpromising of positions. But as he came off court yesterday, Wawrinka showed no signs of frustration. He knew he had performed creditably, but come up against an inspired opponent.
"I have never played against him as strong as he was playing today," said Wawrinka, who now trails 9-7 in their head-to-head.
"Usually when he wants to be more aggressive he forces himself to do this. This time it was simple. He was hitting forehand shots immediately and I had to be defending. It paid off."
The victory makes Murray the first British male to reach the final since Bunny Austin in 1937. It also goes down as comfortably his best grand-slam win since the 2013 Wimbledon title and the back surgery that followed.