Andy Murray has always insisted that he never looks beyond the next match but a tingle must have run down his spine here last night. Murray has to beat David Ferrer today to reach Sunday's final of the Australian Open, but Roger Federer's defeat in yesterday's first semi-final means that neither the greatest player of all time nor Rafael Nadal, the current world No 1, now stands in the 23-year-old Scot's path as he attempts to become the first male British winner of a Grand Slam singles title for 75 years.
Twenty-four hours after a hamstring injury helped to send Nadal out of the tournament, Federer lost his grip on the last Grand Slam title that he held when he was crushed 7-6, 7-5, 6-4 by Novak Djokovic, who on Sunday will attempt to reclaim the crown he won here three years ago.
Murray, nevertheless, will endeavour to focus all his energies on his match against Ferrer, who beat Nadal in straight sets on Wednesday and is not an opponent to be taken lightly. The 28-year-old Spaniard is unbeaten this year, having won in Auckland in the first week of the season. He has also won three of his five matches against Murray, although the Briton will take heart from the fact that he came out on top in both their encounters on hard courts, including the most recent in London two months ago.
Ferrer played 84 matches last year, more than any other player on the main tour, and is phenomenally fit. Although he lacks the power of most of his rivals – he is comparatively small at 5ft 9in and 11st 6lb – the world No 7 is very quick around the court and a dogged competitor. He also has an excellent return of serve.
"His length has always been one of his main strengths," Murray said yesterday. "He gets really good depth on the ball and good penetration. That's why he had such a great match against Rafa. He was on top of his game and took a lot of chances, which came off. He never gives up and will chase everything down, so I'll have to be patient and mix up my game. I'm looking forward to the match-up."
Asked whether his mental approach to the semi-final had changed because he would not be facing Nadal, Murray insisted: "It's still the same. Ferrer's a great player, so it hasn't changed at all. For me, it's business as usual. I'll prepare as I always do and make sure I'm completely focused."
Brad Gilbert, Murray's former coach, is among those who thinks that a victory for Ferrer is quite possible. "He will present a big challenge to Murray the way he's playing at the moment," Gilbert said on ESPN. "He reminds me of a basketball player. When he doesn't have the ball he never stops moving. He's just perpetual motion."
Both Federer and Djokovic said that they saw Murray as the favourite to reach the final. Djokovic added: "Ferrer has been showing maybe his best tennis on hard courts lately. He's playing well, so he's going to give his best. It's definitely going to be interesting to see who is going to prevail. I'm just going to relax and take some time off. I have two days now, which is always very much needed at this stage of the tournament to recover a little bit and get ready."
Nadal, meanwhile, will be backing his Davis Cup colleague. "David's playing a fantastic tournament," he said. "If he keeps playing like this, he has a good chance. I would love him to win the tournament. He's a fantastic guy and a good friend."
Murray, nevertheless, should have the majority of the support in Rod Laver Arena. The Scot is one of the most popular players here and draws big crowds even to his practice sessions. "The support has been huge both here and at home and I'm very grateful," he said. "It means a huge deal, especially on some of the tighter points."
Ferrer has only ever played in one Grand Slam semi-final, which he lost to Djokovic at the US Open four years ago, but insisted he would treat today's encounter as "just another match". He added: "I will fight, like every match of my life. Andy is a top player, but I am confident."
The Spaniard and his long-time coach, Javier Piles, are fitness fanatics. During the off season Ferrer goes on 90km mountain bike rides in the hills around his base in Valencia. He can run 10km in 36 minutes and spends time at the end of every training session playing left-handed in the belief that it keeps his body well balanced.
Nevertheless, he has not always been as dedicated. When Ferrer was a teenager and showing no appetite for hard work, Piles used to lock him up in a small store room at their tennis club with just a piece of bread and a bottle of water as punishment.
Murray was asked how he might have reacted if one of his coaches had treated him in a similar fashion. "That's a tough one and something I've never encountered," Murray smiled. "Most of my coaches were pretty disciplined when I was growing up in the UK. Then when I moved over to Spain it was a similar story. Each to their own, I guess. It doesn't seem to have turned out too badly for him, but I tend to like a bit more variation in my food."