Andy Murray no longer goes on court wearing Fred Perry shirts but by Sunday night he could be donning his mantle. Seventy-four years after the last British man to win a Grand Slam singles title claimed his eighth and final major prize, Murray will attempt to secure his first when he plays in the final of the Australian Open.
Murray's 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 semi-final victory over Marin Cilic here yesterday takes him into his second Grand Slam final following his defeat to Roger Federer at the US Open two years ago. Federer, the greatest player ever to have lifted a racket, could again be on the other side of the net, though the world No 1 first has to beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the 2008 runner-up, in today's second semi-final.
You can only hope that the weight of history will not rest too heavily on Murray's shoulders. A total of 275 Grand Slam tournaments has been played since Perry, Britain's greatest player, won the 1936 US Open and in all that time only four of his fellow countrymen have even reached a men's singles final. Bunny Austin lost to Donald Budge at Wimbledon in 1938, John Lloyd to Vitas Gerulaitis here in 1977, Greg Rusedski to Pat Rafter in New York in 1997 and Murray to Federer two years ago.
Nevertheless, given Murray's form in his first six matches here, the 22-year-old Scot will fear neither of his possible opponents. He has won four of his six matches against Federer since that New York final and has beaten Tsonga in two of their three meetings, though the Frenchman won when they played in the first round here two years ago.
The Australian Open had been Murray's least productive Grand Slam tournament until now, but he has always said the hard courts and hot weather here should work in his favour. He has been the outstanding player of the fortnight so far and went into last night's encounter having not dropped a set.
On a cool and still evening, the crowd's reactions to the on-court introductions of the two players were an early demonstration of who they would be supporting. There were huge cheers for Murray, whose superb quarter-final victory over Rafael Nadal had been the talk of the tournament.
Cilic, however, had also blazed a trail over his first five matches, with Juan Martin del Potro, the US Open champion, and Andy Roddick among the 21-year-old Croat's victims.
For a set and four games the match looked evenly balanced. Although the more experienced player, Murray seemed the more nervous of the two men and Cilic, the youngest player in the world's top 50 was quick to punish the Scot whenever he played tentatively. From the outset he went for his shots, particularly on Murray's second serve, and showed a surprising willingness to attack the net.
The 6ft 6in world No 14, who will break into the top 10 in next week's updated ranking list, has a huge wingspan, his arms covering the court like a jumbo jet's wings over a runway, and Murray initially struggled to find a way past him. Cilic saved two break points in the second game but drew first blood as Murray dropped his serve to trail 3-2. Three more break points went begging in the next game and from 4-3 down Murray went into free fall as Cilic won 14 points in succession, taking the first set.
Murray was looking for inspiration and found it from within when he played an extraordinary point that changed the whole complexion of the match as Cilic served at 2-2 and 30-40 in the second set. Having kept a rally alive with two desperate lunges, the Scot struck a sensational winner with his next shot when he chased down a lob, turned and smacked a forehand down the line. Murray stood and roared into the night air. "I never realised my mouth was so big," he said after the match when watching a video replay.
The crowd, having also been treated to reruns of the point on the big on-court screens, were still cheering when the players emerged from the change of ends. Murray, who had previously looked subdued, immediately became so energised that in chasing one Cilic smash he was halfway down the exit tunnel before he stopped. Cilic clung on, saving four more break points in his next service game, but could do nothing to stop Murray serving out for the set.
Cilic looks like a matchstick man, but he is built of stern stuff and responded in kind to Murray's break of serve early in the third set. Murray, however, was starting to dominate the rallies and broke again in the seventh game. His confidence was evident in the range of his shots: thumping winners from the best backhand in men's tennis, tantalising drop shots, cunning slices and sudden accelerations of pace, to name just a few highlights of his multifaceted game.
When Cilic served at 1-1 and deuce in the fourth set he put a tired backhand in the net and then double- faulted. His gruelling fortnight – he had played three five-set matches in earlier rounds – finally appeared to catch up with him, while Murray, who had spent eight hours less on court than his opponent en route to the semi-finals, was making the Duracell bunny look like a slacker.
Murray provided a final moment of genius when he served out for victory at 5-2. A Cilic cross-court forehand seemed to have beaten him, but the Scot, one of the fastest movers in the game, got to it and from a good 10 feet beyond the tramlines thundered a forehand winner between the net post and the umpire's chair. Afterwards, Murray stood motionless, apparently in disbelief at his own extraordinary athleticism.
A service winner rounded off victory after three hours and two minutes. Murray walked to the net to shake hands with Cilic and there were no extravagant celebrations. The Scot expects to be winning matches at the sharp end of Grand Slam tournaments these days and he will not be satisfied until the ghost of Frederick John Perry is laid to rest.
Australian Open Men’s final: 8.30am, Sunday. Televised live on BBC 2 and Eurosport, radio coverage on BBC Radio Five Live
Number of sets Andy Murray has had to play to reach the final – dropping only one.