Australian Open 2014: Roger Federer to give Andy Murray first true test since his return
British No 1 to face the rejuvenated Swiss he beat in last year’s semi-finals
Playing Roger Federer has always been special for Andy Murray and when he meets the former world No 1 here on Wednesdau it will have even more meaning than usual. Just two tournaments into his comeback following back surgery in September, Murray is through to the quarter-finals of the Australian Open.
“It’s a big match for me,” Murray said after completing a 6-1, 6-2, 6-7, 6-2 victory over France’s Stéphane Robert in the fourth round. “I said at the start of the tournament that I can’t honestly say my expectations are as high as if I’d been playing for the last four months. It’s been a good effort so far to get to the quarter-finals of a Slam this soon after back surgery, so I’m happy with that. But I’m not far away from winning the event. Anyone that’s in the quarters is close.”
Murray has won 11 of his 20 matches against Federer, including three of the last four, in the 2012 Olympic final and Shanghai semi-finals and in last year’s semi-finals here.
“Obviously, last year is pretty relevant because it’s on the same court and it will be under the same conditions,” Murray said. “But in an individual sport, any day is a new day. Anything can happen. You play 10 per cent below your best, you can be off the court quickly. So whether my tactics are great or not, I need to play a great match to win.”
With his counter-punching game, Murray has always relished taking on attacking opponents like Federer but, as the 32-year-old Swiss pointed out after his hugely impressive 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, “We’re both coming into this match with a good feeling but with some slight doubts.”
Both are relieved to have overcome problems with their back. While Murray resorted to surgery, Federer has been having treatment on the back problems which were a significant factor in what by his standards was a poor 2013, when he won only one minor tournament.
The world No 6 has been in excellent form here and appears to have drawn inspiration from his recruitment of Stefan Edberg, who will be working with him intermittently alongside Severin Luthi, his regular coach. Having lost last summer in the second round at Wimbledon and in the fourth round at the US Open, Federer joked that he had latched back on to his previous record run of 36 consecutive appearances in Grand Slam quarter-finals.
He is attacking the net more, which is a sure sign of the influence of Edberg, who was always the sweetest of volleyers, even if Murray would be surprised if the Swede had made a major impact so quickly.
“They’ve only really done five or six days together,” Murray said. “You’ll see how much the coaches have helped the players and the things they’ve been working on in three, four, five months’ time. But right now it would be hard to say.”
Federer, nevertheless, talked positively about Edberg’s influence. “It’s just a different perspective,” he said. “You can take so many things from his experience, try out a few things that worked for him, try out a few things that he thinks would work out for me this time around. He’s here now more for just support, making me feel comfortable, giving me the right advice pre-match, post-match, discussing it with Severin, my coach.
“I don’t have doubts any more. I know I’m going definitely in the right direction. I’ve had a great off-season. I had a strong end to the year. I couldn’t have worked harder in the off-season.
“What I’ve shown over the last three to four months to myself is that I’m more confident, that I know I’m most likely going to play OK in my next match, which wasn’t always the case midway through last year, when I didn’t know how I was going to feel actually during the match.”
Playing with a new and larger racket has also helped. “I do believe I have easier power with the racket on the serve. It might help me on the return, as well. I hope it is the case. I still need to put many more matches and hours on it, but so far so good. It’s a great start to the season.”
Has Murray had enough time on court against top players since starting his comeback? Feliciano Lopez, the world No 27, was a significant test in the third round, but Go Soeda, Vincent Millot and Robert are all ranked outside the world’s top 100.
Robert, a 33-year-old Frenchman who spends most of his time on the Challenger tour, is an unorthodox and unpredictable opponent, though Murray played him beautifully for the best part of three sets, only to let the world No 119 off the hook momentarily. Murray served for the match at 5-4 in the third set but was broken for the only time as he failed to convert two match points, one of them thanks to a double-fault.
Two more match points came and went in the tie-break, which Robert won 8-6. Murray, nevertheless, steadied the ship in impressive fashion in the fourth set, in which two breaks of serve led him to complete victory after two hours and 42 minutes.
Murray’s frustration at not finishing off his man when he had him on the ropes was evident when he smashed his racket at the end of the third set, for which he was given a code violation. “It’s not something as a player you’re particularly proud of, but sometimes you just need to get some frustration out,” he said later. “I wanted to do it at that moment. I took my warning and moved on.”
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