Murray running straight at excellence

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Roger Federer represented a Plexiglas ceiling to Andy Murray in Grand Slam play. He could see where he needed to go, and he hammered away at the barrier in three championship finals. But the most he had managed to do before Friday night was bend Federer by winning one set on the court where Murray most wanted to win it all, at Wimbledon.

"I'm getting closer," Murray said through tears on Centre Court this past July.

Over the next two months, Murray would deny Federer a long-held goal on the same court by winning the Olympic gold medal, then win his first Slam title, in New York, over his generation-mate Novak Djokovic.

On Friday, he punched through the last of his frustrations with both fists.

Great Britain's Murray outplayed 17-time Grand Slam champion Federer for most of the 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-2 Australian Open semifinal win, but Federer -- still hungry after all these years -- hunkered down and would not yield in two sets that went to tiebreakers.

It's hard to find room to carve a new statistic in Federer's marble wall of honor, but get the chisel out. It was the first time in his glorious career that he played back-to-back five-setters, having survived a punishing maximum-distance quarterfinal against France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Now Murray has a chance to do something original. Excellence is seldom consolidated quickly in tennis. No man in the Open era, which dates back to 1968 -- not even Federer with his crowded trophy case -- has followed up an inaugural Slam win with a second, confirming one right away.

To do so, Murray will have to step on the throat of a three-time Australian Open champion with seemingly bottomless stamina who cruised in his semi and will come at him rested and refreshed. "I hope it's a painful match; that'll mean it's a good one," third-seeded Murray said of his Sunday matchup with fellow 25-year-old Djokovic, the Serbian world No. 1 who is seeking a third straight title here.

"I've been questioned for large parts of my career about physically would I be strong enough; mentally would I be strong enough; do I listen to my coaches, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, whatever it is, can I handle pressure," Murray said.

"I think those years of having all of those questions and then finally to be able to answer them, I think, yeah, it was all part of the process. So I hope on Sunday I can play a good match. Obviously having won against Novak before in a Slam final will help mentally."

Federer had spoken of five-set thrillers with similar twisted fondness a couple of nights ago, but he doubtless would have liked to avoid playing two in a row in his campaign for an Open era-record fifth Australian Open title. Murray's movement and shot-making have always gotten under the skin of Federer's game, and the Scot held a 10-9 lifetime edge entering this match in their meetings going back to 2005.

Serving made the difference Friday. Murray has defined the phrase "quiet progression through the draw" in the past 10 days, barely getting winded in any of his five matches, playing in the afternoon, his results obscured by upsets and night action. But he told ESPN analyst Darren Cahill in a postmatch interview that he served better than he had the entire rest of the tournament against a player who has won many a battle in that category.

"Definitely it was more of a chase, you know," Federer said. "I was able to level it a couple of times. Look, I think it was a tough match. I think I had my chances a little bit. Obviously you're going to go through a five-setter with some regrets, you know. … I think Andy was a bit better than I was tonight.

"It's normal that, with time and with age, you learn, you become more experienced, become physically better."

Murray told reporters he was consciously remaining self-contained in the aftermath to conserve energy for the final.

"I think I did all the things I needed to do," a typically understated Murray said afterward. He said he "wasn't comfortable" in the second and fourth sets. "To lose them was tough," he said. "I was just happy with the way I responded after both those sets.

"He played some big points when he was behind. It's what he always does."

Murray looked as if he might make shockingly quick work of Federer in a dominant, 45-minute first set in which the Swiss star had few easy points on his serve. Neither blinked in a far tighter second set that marched inexorably to a tiebreaker.

With Murray serving at 5-all in the tiebreaker, he leaped to volley a ball that appeared to be on its way out. Federer did more than handle it, ripping a backhand winner, and Murray swatted a forehand error to even the match.

The third set went the way of the first as Murray looked like a man who wanted to get back to his hotel, wrapping it up in a quick 36 minutes on the strength of a break in the sixth game.

Federer refused to fade in a careening fourth set, breaking Murray for the first time to go up 3-1 and then 4-1 on his serve. He gave that break back in a game that turned on an ill-advised drop shot that took a leisurely bounce and allowed Murray to tee off.

The Scot charged back and had a chance to serve out the match at 6-5 but eventually lost his grip with a forehand error. The contentious game featured a Federer stare-down and a Murray sneer after one point that neither man wanted to discuss. Federer reeled off five straight points to take the tiebreaker, but, on the heels of that effort, he couldn't muster much against a fifth-set barrage by Murray in which he dropped just three points on his own serve.

Murray exuded calm satisfaction rather than exuberance after the win, reflecting greater expectations of himself with the U.S. Open and the Olympics in his pocket.

"It seems like he has more peace when he plays out there, and in the process he has better results, I guess," Federer observed.