Six times they had played one another, and split the honours, and both arrived at this semi-final play-off in fine form and with big names under their belts. The reward was a place in the title bout against the most challenging player in tennis today, the four-time Australian champion Novak Djokovic, and it took over four hours to determine the outcome, 4-6, 7-5, 6-7(4), 6-4, 6-2 to Murray.
The Briton has been riding a wave of confidence since a 2015 season that brought his first two clay titles, one of them a Masters, a record fourth Queen’s title, a high-value victory over Djokovic to win the Montreal Masters, plus three more big finals—indoors in Paris, outdoors in Miami, and right here in Melbourne. He capped it all by leading GB to Davis Cup victory. Add into the mix imminent fatherhood and the return of coach Amelie Mauresmo, and Murray was in fine fettle.
After a good warm-up in Hopman Cup, he worked through some difficult opposition here, including Bernard Tomic and the feisty No8 seed David Ferrer.
But then Raonic, the only man born in the 1990 thus far to break through the top-five barrier—albeit fleetingly last May—was looking increasingly like a man on a mission. He may have stayed inside the top 10 were it not for a sequence of injuries, first foot surgery that took him out of the French Open and then hip surgery to end his season in Shanghai.
Since his return, he had already beaten defending champion Roger Federer in Brisbane, and then beat three seeds in a Grand Slam for the first time, including a five-setter over No4 seed and former Australian champion Stan Wawrinka.
And it was clear that the 25-year-old had put in a lot physical and tactical work along the way. His tennis, built on a formidable serve, was increasingly forward-moving, with one-two strikes cashing in on all-round power off the ground and vastly-improved movement and footwork. Suddenly, he was smashing, volleying and driving winners from all parts of the court.
In the quarters, he was at the net 46 times in beating Gael Monfils, against Wawrinka he pulled off 54 points from 83 at the net, and against No21 Viktor Troicki, it was 25/32.
With a first Grand Slam final at stake, Raonic went after it with every ounce of his considerable 65kg being.
Murray opened the serving, but Raonic opened with a forehand winner, then a volley finish, and finally another forehand winner to break.
It looked as though Murray would hit straight back with 0-40 in the next game, but the Canadian put together five straight points to hold for 2-0. He continued to pile on the pace and pressure, too, drawing errors and a break chance in the seventh game, but Murray gradually upped his serving level—and he would maintain a 68 percent first-serve rate through the match—to hold. But he did not get another break chance and the set was done, 6-3 to Raonic, in 36 minutes.
The standard from both men was now soaring. Murray started to get a read on the Raonic serve, even some of the many that were directed at his body. He managed to draw a few errors on the Canadian’s backhand, though there were slim pickings, even from the Murray drop shot and lob: Raonic sprinted for a net pick-up, and leapt for some outstanding winning smashes.
The Canadian resisted a break point in the second and sixth games, and deuce in the 10th, but Murray’s serving was now near-perfect—over 80 percent—and his errors a meagre five. A love hold, and he produced a piece of magic, first a drop, then a lob, and a forehand pass for break point. A slammed return back at Raonic’s feet sealed the break and set, 7-5.
That one had taken almost an hour, and the next two would be no different, with Murray making modest numbers of outright winners but even fewer unforced errors, and Raonic piling on the attack to build winners but also errors.
Barely a point was conceded on serve up to 5-5 in the third, when Murray faced down a break point with a forehand winner: It would take a tie-break.
Raonic wrenched control immediately, and aside from one loose volley, played some blistering shots—one smash from baseline onto far sideline for a winner stood out—to take a lead he would not give up: 7-6(4).
The fourth set started with nothing between them: a love hold apiece, 105 points to Raonic and 103 to Murray. But suddenly the picture began to change. Raonic left court for a medical timeout after the third game, for what was later revealed to be a groin injury.
Even so, he was offered a poor service game from Murray on his return, but returned too poorly to take advantage. The errors now began to leak from the Canadian, and Murray broke in the fifth. The Briton offered a break-back chance in the eighth game, but three deuces and eight minutes later, he held, and fist-pumped his delight. Despite a spirited hold by Raonic through break point for 4-5—and more courtside treatment—Murray survived 15-40 with some big serving to level the match, 6-4.
In the decider, it was one-way traffic, a break gifted to Murray with a double-fault in the first game and, a smashed Raonic racket and two love holds to Murray later, it was 4-0.
To his credit, Raonic fought off five break points to close out a hold with three aces in an eight-minute fifth game, and aced to hold at 2-5, but Murray sealed this riveting win to love, 6-2.
It would take a hard-hearted spectator not to feel sympathy for the Canadian: But for this latest injury, he may well have reached the final—and but for two surgeries last year, would surely be ranked well inside the top 10. But he has certainly thrown down a gauntlet for 2016.
Murray, for his part, played resilient, focused, intelligent tennis, and will have to do that and more if he is to break his run of finals in Australia—the last three of them lost to Djokovic: “A lot of things are important when you’re playing the best in the world. You can’t afford to do anything poorly. I need to execute my game plan well, not have any lapses in concentration, and just play as best I can. Novak’s played extremely well, the last couple of matches in particular. He loves playing on this court. We played a bunch of times here—hopefully this time we can get a different result.”
Murray then had a word for his brother Jamie, who has reached the final of his third straight Grand Slam with new doubles partner Bruno Soares, making the Murrays the first brothers in the Open Era to reach the finals in both the men’s singles and doubles of a Grand Slam.
“Both my parents will be extremely proud. There’s not many tennis players come out of Scotland. [Smiling, not least because Scot Gordon Reid has also reached the finals of both the singles and doubles wheelchair event here].
“I never expected to be doing this. Neither of our parents would have expected us to be here, so for both to be in a Slam final for the first time is pretty incredible.”
If Andy Murray is to win his own first Australian title, he has to turn around a 9-20 losing record, one that has seen him win only once against Djokovic in 11 matches since the 2013 Wimbledon final.
Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares play at approx 10:00 GMT Saturday on RLA.
Gordon Reid plays his singles final on Court 6 at approx 03:00 GMT and his doubles final at approx 05:30 GMT.
Andy Murray will play Novak Djokovic at approx 08:00 GMT Sunday.
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