Andy Murray is back where he kicked off his breakthrough 2012 season and his working partnership with Ivan Lendl, only one win away from successfully defending his title at the Brisbane International.
The reigning Brisbane, Olympic and US Open champion advanced to
the final when fifth-seeded Kei Nishikori retired with an injured left
knee when trailing 6-4, 2-0 in their semifinal early this morning.
Still in his way is Grigor Dimitrov, the 21-year-old Bulgarian who is starting to live up to his reputation as a star-in-the-making by reaching his first ATP Tour final with a 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (5) win over 2006 Australian Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis.
The women's final is set for tonight with Serena Williams against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
Both Murray and Dimitrov have an eye on the Australian Open, which starts on January 14, but both are conscious of the early-season interest in a showdown between a member of the top four and a player in the up-and-coming group who are determined to break the domination that Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Murray and Rafael Nadal have had in the majors.
Murray knows what is at stake tomorrow, recalling his first ATP Tour final against Federer — he lost at Bangkok in 2005 — as an opportunity to go for his shots with nothing to lose.
The top four men are constantly asked about players who're capable of being in the next generation of champions. The 25-year-old Murray is now including Dimitrov on his list.
"From my point of view, I hope that there isn't people coming through because it means that I'll be one of the ones that's losing out on a spot," he said, only half joking. "There are loads of guys that are very, very tough players, all with different games.
"Grigor plays with a lot of variety. He can play a lot of shots. He's one the few guys coming through that's got a single-handed backhand as well, so he uses a lot more slice than the others."
Putting them to the test, in the regular tournaments and the more physically demanding majors, is "when you'll find out about them," he said.
He was down 4-1 against No. 5-seeded Nishikori before went on a roll, winning the next seven games before the Japanese player called it quits, two games after receiving medical treatment.
"I'm playing ok. A bit up and down," Murray said. "I've moved better every single match. Returning could have been better, and my groundstrokes, with more matches I'll start it hit them cleaner."
Dimitrov, the youngest player in the top 50, has hit form quickly in 2013 with wins over second-seeded Milos Raonic, the big-serving Canadian, and seventh-seeded Jurgen Melzer en route to his first final.
He raced to a 3-0 lead in eight minutes to establish the only break of the first set and then was up a break in the second before No. 38-ranked Baghdatis hit back to take the match into a third set.
Baghdatis saved a breakpoint to force a tiebreaker and then was stunned when he received a time violation penalty — losing his first serve — when he was down a mini break. The ATP has modified its rules for 2013 to make it easier for chair umpires to caution players about slow play and Baghdatis had already been warned for taking too long between service points.
He fought back in the tiebreaker but Dimitrov came up with a stunning backhand which ultimately turned the match.
After reaching semifinals at Queen's, Bastad and Gstaad in 2012, Dimitrov switched coaches for the off-season and has been working in Sweden at an academy run by Magnus Norman, Nicklas Kulti and Mikael Tillstrom. Together, they set a target of reaching the final in the first week of the season.
"We were actually pretty serious about it, and now that it happened, I was in the locker room and my coach was like, 'Well, I told you so,"' he said. "Definitely every tournament I play of course I want to be in the final."
His single-handed backhand and easy-looking mobility around the court have drawn comparisons with a younger Federer. That doesn't feel like a burden to Dimitrov, who says he hasn't come close to his potential.
"Weighing me down? What for? No, not at all. Total opposite. People can judge anyway, right? Again, Roger is Roger; I'm me," he said. "I haven't won a title yet even though I'm in the final."
Dimitrov said he'd concentrated on honing his physical condition in the off-season because he knows that raw talent will only get him so far.
"Of course I been showing here and there matches that I played, well, outrageous tennis, and I've had matches where I felt like, Ok, I go on court and everything is on. But you have these matches four or five times a year," he said. "That doesn't make you any better player. Talent doesn't win matches.
"I tried to understand all that quite early, because of course there are expectations, everyone compares you, whatever, and these kind of things. But in the end it's the good part in tennis because everything is in your hands. You got to do it. If you want to be out there, you got to go get it from the bottom."