Pretender put in his place by supreme Federer

Young Briton holds his nerve but fighting display again comes up short against the greatest of all time

As if Roger Federer had not done enough to intimidate Andy Murray with his talk of Britain waiting "150,000 years" to produce a Grand Slam champion, the on-court announcer did his best to complete the job. Having listed the world No 1's six Wimbledon titles, to applause from all around Rod Laver Arena, he told the crowd before yesterday's Australian Open final: "I haven't finished yet." By the time Federer's 10 other Grand Slam triumphs had been detailed, Murray might have wondered why he had bothered turning up.

The 22-year-old Scot, nevertheless, has regularly proved that he has the composure to handle the biggest occasions that his sport can throw at him. There were many reasons why he was beaten 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 in his second Grand Slam final – most notably the presence on the other side of the net of the most successful player in history – but loss of nerve was not one of them.

Murray had said before the final that the match was likely to be decided by "a few points here or there". He was right. A straight-sets scoreline might indicate a comprehensive defeat, but over the course of two hours and 41 minutes Federer won only 16 more points – 116 to 100 – than the new world No 3.

If Federer was the better player for the first set and a half, there was virtually nothing to choose between them for the rest of the match. The world's two best players on current form produced some breath-taking tennis in the third set, in which Murray led 5-2 and had five set points in a marathon tie-break.

Federer, never the less, is the master when it comes to the business end of matches. You do not reach 22 Grand Slam finals and win 16 major crowns without having ice in your veins and, once again, he played the big points superbly. There are times when the world No 1 blows opponents off the court with the sheer brilliance of his attacking play, but the keys to his victory here were two more basic aspects of his game.

Federer's serve is the most under-rated weapon in his armoury. He does not hit the ball with exceptional pace, but he has a wide variety of serves, which are all but impossible to read. His length is consistently outstanding on both his first and second serves.

What impressed even more on this occasion were his returns. Murray did not serve well in the early stages - only 45 per cent of his first serves found the target in the opening set – but even when he found his rhythm Federer had the Scot under pressure with the power and depth of his returns.

In all other areas it was hard to separate the two men. Murray's backhand was as potent as ever and for the most part he found the right balance between defence and attack. Focusing his attack on Federer's backhand was a sensible ploy, though it is easier said than done: the Swiss is such a wonderful mover that he can hit his killer forehands from almost anywhere.

The conditions were warm and humid – Federer, the man who never sweats, was on to his third shirt before the end of the second set – but the afternoon rain which had seen the roof closed for the mixed doubles final relented as evening approached. We still await the first indoor men's Grand Slam final, which may have been unfortunate for Murray, who has won eight of his 14 titles under a roof.

If Federer enjoyed the majority of the support there was still plenty of backing for Murray, which grew as the crowd responded to his play. Chris Hoy, Scotland's Olympic gold medal-winning cyclist, joined the Murray entourage.

Murray had looked anxious from the moment he gave a self-conscious wave to the crowd as he entered the arena, but any nerves quickly evaporated. Having gone 2-0 down he broke back immediately with a backhand winner down the line and a lovely forehand cross-court drive. At 2-2 Federer saved three break points – Murray said later that he should have been more aggressive at that stage – and at 4-3 he broke Murray again before serving out for the set.

The Scot, crucially, went into his shell at the start of the second set. Federer, sensing his chance, upped the ante in the third game with some stunning returns of serve, breaking Murray to love. The Swiss had chances to make further breaks, but Murray hung on and by the end of the set was giving as good as he got. Murray's break of serve to lead 4-2 in the second set was greeted with huge cheers. He served for the set at 5-3 only for his own errors and some big returns to give Federer the chance to break back.

The tie-break provided drama of the highest order as Murray had five set points. The shot he played when serving at 6-5 will probably replay in his mind for years to come. His serve and first forehand were faultless, but with Federer at the back of the court Murray hit a half-court ball into the net when trying to drive it into Federer's forehand corner. There was not much pace on the ball, making it tricky to play, but Murray admitted afterwards that he should have hit the wrong-footing shot to Federer's backhand.

Murray defended two match points successfully – the second with a thrilling dash to the net to hit a winner off Federer's drop shot – but on the third he put a backhand into the net.

Federer raised his arms aloft and milked the applause. Murray slumped back in his chair, looking exhausted by his efforts. As the two players stood waiting for the presentations, Murray said to Federer: "I think there will be some tears." Federer replied: "Don't worry, it will be all right."

Unlike Federer, the Scot is not a serial weeper – the last sighting of Murray tears was when he beat Tim Henman, one of his boyhood heroes, in Basle five years ago – but on this occasion the emotion was too much. In time he will look back with pride on his display here, but, for the moment, losing hurts.

World view: Reaction to yesterday's final

"It was nice Roger Federer gave him that complement at the end. It's nice when a great man says that to you. Nothing but good things to look to the future for Andy Murray." Greg Rusedski

"We really got to see a very well and mature Murray. He got a huge amount of exposure and I think that loosened him up a bit." Virginia Wade

"It was a gritty and determined performance from Andy and there certainly isn't any disgrace in losing to the best player ever to hold a racquet. He was typically gracious in defeat. Andy has done the country proud and his time will come." Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland

"For the second half of the first set and the second set, Federer put on a clinic and there was not a lot Andy could've done. A couple of times there was slight hesitation and that's all Federer needs. He still has to take that aggression, controlled aggression, to another level." Tim Henman

"[Murray] still sometimes expects his opponent to lose the final, and that doesn't happen, especially against Federer. He has to be more aggressive, but that's not his natural game. That's what he has to work on." Boris Becker

"[Murray] would admit that he didn't play well enough. I don't think he's quite got the game plan perfected yet, he was a big negative today, that cost him dearly." Pat Cash

"How can you make breaking records look so easy? Ask Roger Federer. He perhaps took the words 'arguably' out of the title of the greatest tennis player ever." New York Times

"Murray would not want to lose another Grand Slam final before he wins one. The next defeat will be his third and if the British press have treated him like a royal during his rise, he'll surely get the Prince Charles-style treatment if he fails to seize the crown a third time." Sydney Morning Herald

"Murray was a disappointing finalist, without aggression or a plan. Federer always commanded and Murray gambled too much." El Pais

"Murray will have to wait a little longer for his sporting knighthood. But the gallant and talented Scotsman earned plenty of applause." Herald Sun

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