Andy Murray decided long before the start of the season what his focus would be this year. Chasing ranking points and titles at lesser tournaments would still play their part in his schedule, but as Murray looked ahead to his 2010 campaign he was clear about his principal target. "I think I'm close to winning a Grand Slam – and I'll give it my best shot to do that," he said.
The year is less than a month old and Murray's goal is already within touching distance. After beating Rafael Nadal, the world No 2, here on Tuesday he goes into today's Australian Open semi-final against Marin Cilic with a wonderful chance of reaching his second Grand Slam final. Cilic, 21, is an outstanding talent, but the world No 14 has never gone this far at a major and to reach this stage has spent almost twice as long on court as Murray, having played three five-set matches already.
"I want to win the tournament – and potentially I'm six sets away from doing that," Murray said. "I want to win more than one Grand Slam title, but the first one will be the toughest."
Tough, yes, but the 22-year-old Scot has greatly improved his chances with his smooth progress through his first five matches. From his clinical victory over Kevin Anderson in the first round, through his masterful dismissal of John Isner, to his exhilarating display against Nadal, the world No 4 has performed more consistently than anyone. He has not dropped a set and has been on court for a total of just 10 hours.
"I think it's pretty amazing, actually," Murray said. "It doesn't happen that often when a guy makes a semi-final of a Slam without dropping a set. I would love to get to the final without dropping one, but it's been a great start."
Murray agreed that Cilic's 18-plus hours on court here amounted to a heavy workload but added: "I've played a lot of tennis in the past at Slams. He's come through a couple of tough ones and will go for it. But it's important for me to stay focused. Then, maybe, his head will go down a little bit. But he might be good for three or four sets and if he plays his best then the first few sets will be really tough."
There have been times in the past when Murray has struggled to follow up big victories at Grand Slam tournaments. Two years ago at Wimbledon he was comprehensively beaten by Nadal after his back-from-the-dead win over Richard Gasquet. In the 2008 US Open his first win over Nadal was followed by a straight-sets defeat to Roger Federer in the final.
Murray, attempting to become the first Briton to reach the final here since John Lloyd in 1977, dismisses the idea that he will have any problem lifting himself mentally and stresses instead the need to be in the best possible shape physically.
"The US Open one was difficult," he said. "Roger had a day off and I had to play back-to-back days. It wasn't ideal at the end of a long season. It's important to recover properly. I need to rest and not spend too much time around the courts. That's what you learn from these experiences, making sure you don't make those mistakes again."
There was little sign of Murray overstretching himself yesterday. While Cilic practised behind closed doors, Murray enjoyed a laid-back session out on Court Four in front of a gaggle of autograph hunters apparently bemused by the customary game of head tennis which started proceedings. The session ended with Jez Green firing serves at Murray from halfway up the court as the Scot struggled to contain his laughter at his fitness trainer's service action.
Cilic has won only one of his four matches against Murray, winning in straight sets in the fourth round of last year's US Open. Murray was struggling at the time with the wrist injury that eventually forced him to take a six-week break.
Did Murray think their meeting in the fourth round of last year's French Open, when Murray won in straight sets, was a better form guide? "I think he's improved a lot, for sure. Obviously he's playing better than he did at the French Open, but, physically, I feel in a lot better shape compared to the US Open. It's going to be tough, regardless of what's happened in the past. Tennis matches can change from day to day. There's no point thinking about those other matches."
Murray says Cilic provides a similar challenge to Juan Martin del Potro. Like the US Open champion, Cilic takes full advantage of his 6ft 6in frame with his booming serve and is most comfortable when cracking big groundstrokes from the baseline.
The youngest player in the world's top 50, Cilic (left) has won four titles already. He is coached by Bob Brett at the Australian's academy in San Remo, Italy, having gone there on the recommendation of his fellow Croat, Goran Ivanisevic.
Brett said he did not believe Cilic would be hampered by fatigue and reckons he has learnt much from his marathon wins here over Bernard Tomic, Stanislas Wawrinka, Del Potro and Andy Roddick. "The difference is just getting out of difficulty and being able to sustain his level over a long period of time and that has been the difference," Brett said. "He's come through a couple of tough situations. Marin's very easy to work with. He learns well and he's committed to his work. I don't think that anybody can ask for any more than that."
Cilic himself thinks the physical challenge could be his greatest test. "The biggest thing for me will be to try to recover as much as I can and try to be ready so that I can play on my level," he said. "It's not easy when you get to these stages of a tournament when you haven't often got that far in the past. It's not easy, psychologically, to be able to bring your best tennis when you need it."
Murray v Cilic
Today's semi- finalists have met twice in Slams:
French Open 2009, 4th round: Murray won 7-5, 7-6, 6-1
Cilic suffered a thigh injury early in the third set but already looked a beaten man. Murray served well, with strong, deep returns, and frustrated him with his dogged retrieving. Murray's only blemish in the third set came when he lost his serve at 4-0.
US Open 2009 4th round: Cilic won 7-5, 6-2, 6-2
Murray, concerned by the wrist injury that would eventually keep him out for six weeks, gave a lacklustre performance. At 5-5 in the first set, Murray played a poor game, dropping his serve to 15, and thereafter went downhill fast.
On top Down Under: Why Murray has the others scared
Energy Due in part to Rafael Nadal's early exit, the Scot has spent the least amount of time on court. With Cilic averaging more than three-and-a-half hours per match compared to Murray's two, the latter will undoubtedly be fresher.
Murray 601 minutes played, Federer 642, Tsonga 805, Cilic 1,088
Serve Murray's first serve has been key to his progression. He boasts the highest first-serve points percentage of the tournament, winning 79.4 per cent of points. Murray's 13 aces to Nadal's one shows just how large an asset the Scot's serve is.
Murray 79.4 per cent pts won on first serve, Cilic 79, Tsonga 78.8, Federer 77.2
Return Murray has been impressive when facing serve so far, boasting a higher percentage of points won than Federer, Tsonga and Cilic. His backhand return has proved particularly lethal.
Murray 47.4 per cent pts won on return, Federer 44.8, Cilic 38 Tsonga 37.2
Killer instinct The 22-year-old has converted over 50 per cent of his break-point opportunities, the most in the tournament. By denying Nadal 10 break points from a possible 12 in the quarter-final, Murray showed unfaltering mental toughness.
Murray 50.2 per cent break points won, Federer 46.4, Tsonga 41.6, Cilic 38.4
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