Andy Murray has some way to go before his overall achievements can be mentioned in the same breath as Ivan Lendl's, but the Scot is only one win away from joining his coach on at least one page of the record books. Murray's crushing 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 victory over Japan's Kei Nishikori in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open yesterday put him within touching distance of becoming the first man to reach three successive finals at the year's first Grand Slam event since Lendl in 1989, 1990 and 1991.
There is only one problem: the next obstacle is Novak Djokovic, who destroyed Murray in straight sets in the final 12 months ago. The 24-year-old Serb earned his place in the last four with a 6-4, 7-6, 6-1 victory over David Ferrer to complete the perfect semi-final line-up. Rafael Nadal (world No 2) will take on Roger Federer (No 3) today, before Djokovic (No 1) and Murray (No 4) do battle tomorrow.
The semi-finals provide confirmation of the Fab Four's domination. This is the third time in the last four Grand Slam tournaments that they have all made it to the semi-finals, with Federer's defeat by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon last summer the only blemish on their collective record since an injured Nadal was beaten by Ferrer in the quarter-finals here last year. Ferrer, the world No 5, said last night that he did not believe it was possible for other players to close the gap on the big four because they were "at another level".
Murray is putting together a remarkable record of consistency. This will be his fifth consecutive Grand Slam semi-final and his ninth in the last 14 Grand Slam tournaments. The only time he has lost to anyone other than Federer, Nadal or Djokovic in a Grand Slam semi-final or final was when Andy Roddick got the better of him at Wimbledon three years ago.
Nevertheless, Murray has lost all three of his Grand Slam finals without winning a set, his most disappointing effort having been last year's final here. He has beaten Djokovic in four of their last six meetings – and should have won in last year's Rome Masters, when he served for the match – but when it mattered most the Serb swept him aside.
The presence of Lendl in Murray's corner could be a significant difference this time. While Murray insists that it will be months before he feels the full benefit of his help, the 51-year-old having joined his team at the start of the year, his influence is clear. Lendl wants Murray to stay more focused and there has been little sign of the grimacing and shouting in the general direction of his entourage that has often been a feature of Murray's matches in the past.
In his column in The Australian newspaper yesterday, Murray spoke of his admiration for the "brutal" attitude that Lendl took on to the court as a player, and in particular his liking for thumping the ball straight at opponents standing at the net. In a similar incident earlier this week Tomas Berdych refused to shake hands at the end of his victory over Nicolas Almagro, after the Spaniard fired a ball straight at him.
Murray said he got on well with all the top players but stressed: "You put all of that to one side and you go and try to win and do whatever it takes to get that win. If that means hitting them with a passing shot like Almagro did with Berdych, you just have to do whatever you have to do to get the win.
"It's always down to the player. It doesn't matter what anybody says to you on the court, it's up to you whether you take it on board and how you put the things you have been told tactically to find a way of putting them into matches. The coach is there to help you mature and understand certain situations and, for me, pacing my way through Grand Slams and dealing with the pressure that comes at the end of Grand Slams."
Djokovic will not take anything for granted. "Andy looks fit," he said. "He's been playing well. He's definitely very motivated to win his first Grand Slam. He's played in the last two finals here. He's been proving to himself and the rest of the people that the Australian Open is probably his best Grand Slam."
With Lendl watching from the side of the court, Djokovic beat Ferrer with plenty to spare, though the world No 1 occasionally looked in distress. He quickly recovered from what appeared to be a hamstring problem, but admitted that he had had difficulty breathing, something which has troubled him in the past. Nevertheless, he insisted he would be fully fit for the semi-final.
Murray achieved his 10th consecutive victory in hugely impressive fashion, despite having a sore neck which affected his serve. Nishikori had beaten Tsonga in the previous round, but the 22-year-old Japanese was outplayed by Murray from the start and appeared to pay for his earlier physical exertions.
Nishikori may have had the edge on moments of magic – the world No 26 won one point after a spectacular lob played through his legs with his back to the net, while Murray missed the ball completely when going for a through-the-legs running forehand drive – but in most other areas the world No 4 came out on top.
The writing was on the wall as early as the second game, when Murray won an extraordinary 42-shot rally. "Right after I thought, 'I'm going to quit this match,'" Nishikori said, with a smile.
Now Murray has to prepare for a tougher challenge. Would he try to put last year's final out of his mind? "You obviously want to move on from what's happened in the past, but you also need to learn from it," he said. "You need to learn from the experience, take the positives and some of the negatives out of it to try and improve as a player."