Andy Murray will take comfort from Friday’s second semi-final of the Australian Open when the winner, Novak Djokovic, was taken to five sets but did not play much better than the loser, Stan Wawrinka.
Sentiment is already growing for Murray to start Sunday’s final as a slight favourite given that Djokovic, the world No1, struggled to beat an opponent playing patchily but who might have beaten him had he taken his chances.
“They are 2-2 in major finals and I like this surface more for Djokovic, but Murray is looking awfully good,” observed Patrick McEnroe for ESPN. “Murray brought an amazing amount of intensity to his last match. I’m very pleasantly surprised to see him playing this well so early in the season. Amélie Mauresmo has clearly taken charge.”
It was a sad exit for Wawrinka, who had had an excellent tournament but failed to win a single point on his second serve in the final set.
Djokovic, meanwhile, will be relieved rather than elated. He got away with this one, winning 7-6 (7-1), 3-6, 4-6, 6-0 in three and a half hours on a cool night on Rod Laver Arena that never properly warmed up in any sense.
It was a match riddled with 118 unforced errors, 49 of them off the Serb’s racket, and was way below the intensity of their fourth-round war in 2013, when Djokovic took just over five hours to win.
Nor was it anywhere near as good as Wawrinka’s five-set win in the quarter-finals last year, when he went on to beat Rafael Nadal in the final.
Djokovic, after an off day, has one day off – to Murray’s two – but that should not worry him. He has no acknowledged physical issues except, perhaps, the coughing fit that struck when he turned to Boris Becker in his box to celebrate taking the third set.
His progress has gone under the radar, as it often does when he is on the other side of the draw to Murray, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. He had spent nine hours and 42 minutes on court, compared with 10 hours and 32 minutes by Wawrinka, and had not dropped a set.
What will concern Djokovic, however, is that Murray is playing better tennis than anyone in the tournament, with well-timed aggression, focus and solid defence. What Djokovic brings to any big occasion is unpredictability and animal power that borders on the frightening, but Murray showed in seeing off Grigor Dimitrov and Tomas Berdych that he is up for the physical challenge.
The Djokovic that Ivo Karlovic served off the court in Doha three weeks ago, however, is a different beast to the one who roams the last weekend of a slam, the one who looked across the net at Wawrinka and saw not an opponent but someone who had to be broken down and destroyed. These are brutal encounters, where the best players somehow find another level.
Wawrinka has considerable natural strength, not bought in a gym, but a genetic gift which allows him to hit the hardest single-handed backhand in the sport, often to unreachable spots. He broke Djokovic in the seventh game, but began to blink towards the end of it, and took some eyedrops during the changeover.
Djokovic’s timing was appalling in a nervous start, but he somehow found his rhythm breaking back and, roaring, took the tie-break. He does not swear much in the early rounds of any tournament but gives full vent to his passion when it matters, as if he has been building it up on purpose, like a magic potion.
In all, he converted seven of his 17 break opportunities, Wawrinka five from eight – but not the ones that mattered in that first set. By the time they came to the deciding frame, the Swiss player’s killer backhand had become a liability.