Tennis: Murray looking to 'close the gap' on old friend Djokovic
Just how open is the Australian Open? On the men's side, not very open at all. Yesterday, Andy Murray demonstrated again that he is a worthy member of the 'Big Four' -- that self-perpetuating oligarchy who keep monopolising the semi-final spots at the Grand Slams.
Murray's reward for beating Kei Nishikori will be a semi-final against the world No 1, Novak Djokovic. It might seem like a tough draw, but then they are all tough draws at this stage. These four players are so distinctly superior to the rest of the field that they might as well cancel the first five rounds of the major tournaments and play a round-robin instead.
Who would you rather face? Rafael Nadal, whose final-set performance against Tomas Berdych on Tuesday was arguably his best-ever tennis on a hard court? Or Roger Federer, who has regained the sort of poise and artistry that made him invincible in the middle of the last decade? It is like choosing between a rock, a hard place and the bottom of the Marianas Trench.
In five-set matches, Murray's record against the other 'Big Three' stands at two wins and eight defeats -- which explains why he has yet to break his Grand Slam duck. The one member of the triumvirate he has beaten at a Grand Slam is Nadal, but he has also lost to him five times. So Djokovic is as realistic a target as anyone.
Their only previous encounter at this level came in the Australian Open final a year ago, where Murray was out-rallied in the early stages and then disappeared into a pit of frustration and despair.
He has since admitted that it was the most disappointing defeat of his entire career -- a defeat that took several months to digest and recover from. So how does he feel about returning to the same court for the same match-up tomorrow, even if it is "only" for a semi-final?
"I've always liked playing against him," said Murray, whose friendship-cum-rivalry with Djokovic dates back to when they were 12 years old. "And after the year that he had, the loss didn't look so bad six months later.
"I hope I have improved since last year," he added. "The results that I've had would suggest that. We'll see whether I've closed the gap or not.
"Every year or few years someone improves and sets the bar higher. Last year Novak managed to do it, so that's the goal -- to try and be the one setting the bar."
While there are a few tensions below the surface of Federer's relationship with Nadal, Murray and Djokovic are genuinely close. "It's great to see somebody who you grow up next to doing well," said Djokovic.
Yesterday, Murray devoted his column in 'The Australian' newspaper to the subject of "brutality" -- both in terms of the stifling hot weather, and in relation to new coach Ivan Lendl's habit of hitting the ball straight at his opponents from close range.
"You do whatever it takes to get that win," Murray explained. "If that means hitting them (your opponent) with a passing shot like (Nicolas) Almagro did with Berdych, you just have to do it."
In Murray's quarter-final yesterday, he was always far too strong for Nishikori, beating the 24th seed 6-3, 6-3, 6-1.
Although Murray kept Nishikori off balance, the one concern was his first-serve statistic of just 44pc.
Djokovic himself had a slightly eccentric match against David Ferrer, in which he clutched repeatedly at his hamstrings and his knees. But he soon reassured everyone that "I don't have any physical issues".
Both of these men have mild tendencies toward hypochondria, but they are arguably the fittest men on the tour. Tomorrow's match is shaping up to be a classic. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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