Tennis: Dazzling Murray roars into final
The circus came to the Rod Laver Arena yesterday. Moments before Andy Murray guaranteed he would become the first British male in the modern era to make two Grand Slam finals, he produced an outrageous forehand that his former coach Brad Gilbert felt belonged under a big top rather than on court.
From outside the tramlines, the Scot smoked the ball between the net-post and the umpire's chair for a clean, cool winner. Off his strings, around the post, and an instant YouTube classic.
Yet Murray's 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 victory over Croatia's Marin Cilic should be remembered for another shot from the Scot, a spectacular swivel-and-slap forehand that changed the whole emotion, psychology and momentum of the Australian Open's first men's semi-final.
In the fifth game of the second set, when he had a break point on Cilic's serve, and when he was brought into the service box by a net cord, he scooped the ball back, next hit a volley and was then lobbed.
Murray chased back to the baseline, pirouetted and played the ball down the line for a winner, for the most important shot of his life. That, too, was YouTube gold.
Murray, who was a set down at the time, and who had earlier lost 14 points in succession, celebrated with his best werewolf impression by giving a great howl, and then came back to win in four sets to reach the second Sunday of the Open, when he will play the winner of the second semi-final between Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
"This is the best I've played at a Slam," Murray said. "Obviously the match against Rafa (Nadal) was great. Tonight, the majority of the match was great, as well."
Murray came off a distant second best in his first Grand Slam final, to Federer in the 2008 US Open. In New York, it was Murray's third day in a row on court, but here he has a couple of days off before the title match.
Just one more victory here, against a Swiss or a Frenchman, and Murray will become Britain's first male Grand Slam champion since the year that the British monarchy was going through an abdication crisis and the world's athletes were doing Nazi salutes at the Olympics. That was 1936, when Fred Perry won the US Open; 74 years, and 276 Grand Slam tournaments, have passed since then.
There were two matches in one in the Rod Laver Arena; there was the pre-forehand match and the post-forehand match. Before Murray spun and played that brilliant pass in the second set, Cilic was drilling the ball through the court. The Croatian was playing some fantastic tennis and Murray was playing fetch, forced to attempt squash-shot retrievals or to waft his racket at the cool evening air.
Cilic is from Medjugorje, a small hilltop settlement in Bosnia-Herzegovina where the Virgin Mary is said to have repeatedly appeared to people since the early 1980s. Millions of pilgrims have since visited, and there were suggestions before this semi-final that Cilic's family had been walking up Medjugorje's Apparition Hill to pray for Marin to beat Murray. And Murray thought he only had the ghost of Fred Perry to consider here at the Slam Down Under.
Just as Andy Roddick had predicted, Cilic stood on the baseline in the early stages, "directing traffic" by spanking his forehand into the corners. That inside-out forehand was extremely effective. Murray was nervous, and for the first time this fortnight, he lost a set. Cilic also looked the better player at the start of the second set.
That run of 14 consecutive points for Cilic was spread over the end of the opening set and the beginning of the second: that was more than three games without reply for the 6ft 6in 21-year-old. But soon Murray would have his first moment of brilliance.
They would have heard Murray's giant howl celebration at the Sydney Opera House, never mind in downtown Melbourne.
"I actually practise this shot quite a lot in training," he said. "Yeah, it was a great shot. I managed to turn it around then."
Murray made excellent use of the momentum and Cilic, who had played more than 18 hours of tennis to reach his first Slam semi-final, tired rapidly.
Game by game, he lost push in his legs, and power in his serve and his forehands. The quality of Murray's tennis picked up. That break was good enough for the second set, and he controlled the third and fourth sets.
Then, in the last game, Murray produced his party shot. (© Daily Telegraph, London)