Andy Murray reckoned he played the finest tennis of his life when he reached the Australian Open final here 12 months ago. At the rate he is going the 23-year-old Scot might soon have to revise that verdict.
The year’s opening Grand Slam tournament clearly brings the best out of the world No 5, who today reached the semi-finals with an entertaining 7-5, 6-3, 6-7, 6-3 victory over the 22-year-old Ukrainian, Alexandr Dolgopolov, who has emerged over the last 10 days as a player of real potential. Murray, through to his fifth Grand Slam semi-final, will now meet the winner of today’s later all-Spanish quarter-final between Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer.
Dolgopolov, nevertheless, gave Murray his stiffest challenge yet. The world No 46, who had knocked out Robin Soderling, the world No 4, in the previous round, became the first player this year to take a set off the Scot and the first to keep him on court for more than two hours, Murray securing victory after three hours and six minutes.
The Australia Day crowd were in a festive mood and enjoyed what they saw. Much of the modern game is dominated by players for whom almost the sole aim is to hit the ball from the baseline with as much power as possible. Murray and Dolgopolov are different, constantly mixing up their game with variations of pace and spin. It made for an enthralling match, played on the main show court in largely overcast conditions that were not dissimilar to a typical British summer’s day.
Dolgopolov has a wholly unorthodox style. Murray had played him once before, winning in straight sets when they met in the Davis Cup five years ago, but both players have made big strides since then.
At times the Scot appeared to have trouble reading Dolgopolov’s serve, which he delivers with a lightning-quick action. He hit 16 aces to Murray’s nine. The Ukrainian’s big forehand was an equally damaging weapon. His driven backhand is reliable if lacking in penetration, while his frequent slices, delivered from both flanks, can stop many opponents from finding their rhythm. Murray, however, played a solid match throughout. Dolgopolov made 77 unforced errors, more than twice his opponent’s total.
Although Murray broke serve twice at the start to take a 4-1 lead, he appeared to tighten up in the middle of the first set as Dolgopolov grew in confidence. The Ukrainian, playing in his first Grand Slam quarter-final, levelled to 4-4, before Murray took the set after a lengthy twelfth game. Dolgopolov saved three set points, firstly thanks to a loose Murray backhand and then with two aces, before the world No 5 converted the fourth with a backhand return winner that clipped the baseline. In winning five games in the 57-minute first set Dolgopolov had won two more games in a set than any of Murray’s four previous opponents.
There was only one break of serve in the second set, Murray breaking in the fourth game after Dolgopolov had let slip a 40-15 lead. Murray broke serve in the opening game of the third, only for Dolgopolov to level at 3-3 thanks to a superb forehand winner down the line followed by a loose forehand from his opponent. At 5-5 Dolgopolov saved three break points and from 2-1 down in the tie-break won five points in succession before winning it 7-3 as Murray erred too much on the side of caution.
The crowd, clearly wanting more entertainment, had got increasingly behind Dolgopolov, but Murray’s response at the start of the fourth set was excellent. The Scot was 3-0 and 30-0 up on Dolgopolov’s serve before the Ukrainian even won a point. Dolgopolov rallied from 0-4 down, breaking Murray to bring the score back to 4-2, but from that point Murray served out for the match, securing victory on his first match point when Dolgopolov hit a forehand long.
Kim Clijsters, the favourite to win the title, and Vera Zvonareva, the world No 2, will meet in tomorrow’s women’s singles semi-finals – a rematch of last year’s US Open final - after winning their quarter-final matches in straight sets. Clijsters overcame some late resistance to beat Agnieszka Radwanska 6-3, 7-6, while Zvonareva beat the Czech Republic’s Petra Kvitova 6-2, 6-4.
Clijsters took the first set with something to spare and was a break up before Radwanska started to make a match of it. The Pole won three games in a row to lead 5-4 but was broken when she served for the set. Clijsters took command of the tie-break, which she won 7-4.
There was a similar pattern to Zvonareva’s victory. The Russian took the first set in just 29 minutes and led 3-0 in the second before Kvitova rallied, taking advantage of some off-court distractions. The not-so-distant sound of booming cannons in celebration of the public holiday were followed by a break after an elderly spectator appeared to collapse. Kvitova led 4-3, but Zvonareva recovered her poise and set up match point with a winning lob, after which Kvitova hit a forehand long.
“I had to stay aggressive,” Zvonareva said afterwards. “She's such an aggressive player herself. You don't want her to just keep going for her shots. I was trying to hang in there and fight for every point, but I'm really happy the way I handled the situation. I was able to come up with some good shots when I needed it and finish in two sets.”
Clijsters is the only winner of a Grand Slam tournament through to the women’s semi-finals. “I hope the experience can help me a little bit,” she said. “But there are some tough players out there. We have Nos 1, 2, 3 still in and Li Na has been playing really well, so it’s going to be really tough.”