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Fed-Murray outcome too close to call

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Roger Federer and Andy Murray have done a lot of things in tennis. But heading into their 20th meeting, there's one thing they haven't managed to do: play a five-setter against each other.

Murray and Novak Djokovic have done it. Federer and Djokovic have done it. Federer and Rafael Nadal have certainly done it. Even Murray and Nadal have done it once, way back in their first meeting. But Federer and Murray have yet to go the distance in any of their four best-of-five encounters against one another.

Last year's Wimbledon final came closest, but although Murray made a dazzling start and Federer finished likewise, they rarely played their best at the same time. They were back on Centre Court a few weeks later for the Olympic final, but Federer barely showed up, and a steely Murray, carrying the weight of home expectations, sprinted to the finish line. In the 2008 U.S. Open final and 2010 Australian Open final, it was Murray who couldn't produce his best and suffered two straight-set defeats.

Now, by popular demand, can this particular big four rivalry produce the kind of epic that has become routine when those in the game's biggest quartet face off against each other? It's certainly not the matchup that is lacking. Their thriller at the 2008 Masters Cup in Shanghai best illustrates the electric fusion of their multidimensional games.

"I've always enjoyed playing against him," Federer said. "[I]t gets to be very tactical. Wasn't a straightforward match. He would make you doubt and play very different to the rest of the guys. I kind of always enjoyed that, you know, when it's just not every point's the same. We used to mix it up against each other.

"Now it's changed a bit because he's playing more offensive. The rallies aren't as long and grueling as they used to be."

The head-to-head is very close. Murray leads 10-9, and they have split their past two meetings at Shanghai and the World Tour Finals. But Federer is unbeaten in their Grand Slam encounters, as he was reminded by a reporter after his quarterfinal. "I'm happy you've given me the positive news," Federer said, jokingly. "I'll try to remember that when I walk out."

But Federer isn't giving that too much significance because Murray now is not the Murray of their previous Slam encounters. For one thing, he is a Grand Slam champion himself after winning last year's U.S. Open, bookending a stellar summer, which began with the Wimbledon final and Olympic victory.

The Scot has a new air about him since shaking off his Slam-less status. He's walking taller, playing more confidently and even seems to have a little more color in those once famously pale cheeks.

"I feel probably a little bit calmer maybe than usual," Murray said about reaching the semifinal stage of a major once again. "But I still have an understanding of how difficult it is to win these events. You know, with the players that are still left in the tournament, it's going to be a very tough, tough few days if I want to do that."

Federer, meanwhile, also has hit his stride despite focusing on training rather than match play coming into the tournament. Even with a tricky draw, he didn't drop a set through the first four rounds, then bobbed, ducked and weaved his way through a blockbuster contest with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals.

"I've finally had again a few weeks of practice, you know," Federer said. "It just shows, you know, practice is good to have in your body, especially when you come out at the other end you feel you're in good shape, you feel stronger, you trust in it more, you believe in it more, and that then makes you play better in the process if you go deep into the tournament."

The match comes at a fascinating time in both players' careers. Federer plans to scale back the number of tournaments he plays this season and focus on remaining a contender for the biggest titles. That in effect means not chasing No. 1 -- though of course he could return to the top spot if he continues to win those big titles.

Murray, after winning a Grand Slam, is focusing on performing more consistently at a high level throughout the year and perhaps challenging for No. 1.

So with Federer starting "transition year" (as he puts it) and Murray also appearing to be moving into a different stage of his career, who has the upper hand at the moment? The call is so close that the match conditions have been minutely examined to see whether an edge for either player can be discerned.

Murray has had an easy route through the draw, and Federer has been thoroughly tested. Does that mean Murray is undercooked and will struggle to adjust to facing a higher-level opponent, as Maria Sharapova seemed to do in her match against Li Na? Neither player is buying that. "I would probably rather be in his shoes," Federer said, and Murray said, "I can't be disappointed about being in the semis of a Slam without dropping a set."

Federer has played only night matches, and Murray has played only during the day. Their semifinal clash will be held at night. Advantage Federer? Murray might think so, and he has been hitting under the lights the past couple of days to make sure he's familiar with the conditions. "I said that sometimes it [the scheduling] works in your favor and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes you have to make adjustments," he said.

But Federer points out that he hasn't exactly had an ideal schedule. "I've been going to bed at 3 a.m. every morning and wake up at noon," he related with a smile. "Is that a nice life? I don't know.

"I enjoy playing on Rod Laver Arena, but in some ways I'd rather have the day session because that creates a normal rhythm and a normal life."

One thing that hasn't received much attention, although it could play a significant role, is the court conditions. The surface is reported to be playing faster this year, and even more so in the cooler conditions at night. That would appear to favor second-seeded Federer, but overall, hard courts are better for third-seeded Murray.

So the outcome hangs in the balance and could swing their respective positions in tennis' pecking order. It's tough to ask for more in a Grand Slam semifinal -- except maybe that it go five sets.