Prior to tonight, Roger Federer and Andy Murray had never met before the final stage at Grand Slam level. It’s the kind of statistic that seems revealing until it’s explained away. Really it reflects nothing more sinister than a quirk of the rankings, coupled with that species of coincidence that provides the rich loam in which conspiracy theories take root. In some quarters, the belief flourished rather too well and for rather too long that Federer and Novak Djokovic kept meeting in the semifinals due to the nebulous machinations of the presiding authorities, although an adequate explanation as to why was never proffered. It seemed Murray and Federer were just destined never to meet.
Whatever the outcome of tonight’s match, history was thus on the line. Federer fans inclined to seek succour from precedent were perhaps comforted by the stat that no man had ever backed up winning his first Major by reaching the final of the subsequent one. Similarly-inclined Murray fans could rightfully point out that no one had ever won 18 Majors. Everyone else presumably looked on bemused, and just waited for the players to arrive.
Judging by the respective cheers when the players entered the stadium, a majority of those within Rod Laver Arena supported Federer. Murray, entering first, received a thunderous cheer, but it was immediately eclipsed in volume and duration by the uproar that ushered in his opponent.
Upon winning the toss, Murray, unusually, chose neither to serve nor receive, but picked the end. He chose to begin with the wind at his back, wisely as it turns out. Through the early going Federer’s serve was pummelled, eventually yielding up the break in the third game on the fifth breakpoint. But Murray hardly relented after that, holding his own serve well, while continuing to press on return. At one point the statistic flashed up that the Scot had returned 23 of 24 Federer serves. The pattern was established early whereby Murray would attack Federer’s backhand wing almost without relent, although the times he did relent proved decisive, as he caught the Swiss out repeatedly by going hard into the forehand. He rode his break to the end of the first set, serving it out comfortably.
The patterns grew more varied in the second set, and the players settled into a mounting series of holds, fragmenting the momentum yet escalating the tension. For all that neither player achieved a break point, a tiebreak hardly felt inevitable until it arrived. Momentum continued to lurch drunkenly, with Federer leading by 4-1, before the score returned to parity. The key point came at 5-5, when Murray essayed a foolish slam dunk overhead, leapt too early, framed it and was passed. Federer levelled the match on his first set point.
Fears or hopes that we were thus watching a reprisal of the Wimbledon final proved unfounded. The quality remained stellar from both men in the third, but for a single loose game from the second seed at 2-3. Murray held firm, and once again sealed the set with a strong hold.
The fourth set saw breaks exchanged, though otherwise it cleaved to the patterns of the second. As each hold ticked by, the tension ratcheted up. The key moment came at 5-5, with Federer serving. Three errors brought him to 0-40. A tight rally ensued, with Murray weathering Federer’s assault, and then unloading when he could finally set his feet on a forehand. He served out his first Major victory over Federer with deceptive . . .
Wait, hang on. Actually they fought to 30-30 on Murray’s serve. Federer then constructed a magnificent point to earn the break opportunity, which was converted when Murray overcooked a crosscourt forehand wide. Suddenly it was locked at 6-6, though there was fortunately a mechanism by which this tie could be broken. The subsequent tiebreak belonged to Federer, winning it seven points to two. Murray later confessed that the disappointment of failing to serve out the match had gotten to him. Suddenly a very good tennis match took a bold step towards becoming a classic.
It veered away sharply as Murray shrugged off his disappointment and broke early, leaping to a 3-0 lead. The statistic that Federer had never played back-to-back five setters was ushered out, and duly paraded. He looked weary, while Murray emphatically did not. The persistent story of the night had been Murray’s prowess on serve, and his solidity on return. The most revealing stat was that he won 63% of points on his second serve, while Federer only won 42%. Murray thus earned fistfuls of free points on his own delivery, and guaranteed that his opponent did not. Really, the wonder was that Federer kept it so close. But he couldn’t keep it close in the fifth set, and was eventually broken a second time to lose 6-4 6-7 (5) 6-3 6-7 (2) 6-2.
The handshake afterwards was warm and respectful, and did not reflect the few moments of tension that had punctuated a fine match that was mostly played in tremendous spirits. Federer left the arena to rapturous cheering, his disappointment plain. He must have felt confident after that fourth set fight-back, only to succumb relative quickly. Nevertheless, he was relatively relaxed by the presser, and reiterated several times that he’d been beaten fair and square.
Displaying a confident disdain for historical precedent, Murray thus becomes the first man to progress to a Major final after claiming his first Major title. He has also defeated Federer for the first time in a Major, and for the first time in five sets. If nothing else, the Scot is discovering that no one makes it to the big time with accruing a panoply of obscure statistics.
Try this one: for the first time in approximately 150,000 years, a British man will face an opponent whose nation is experiencing a longer Grand Slam title drought than his. That man is of course Novak Djokovic, and no Serbian man has won a Major in precisely twelve months, although this particular Serb will also be attempting to become the first man to win three consecutive Australian Open titles. Either way you look at it, history will be made, or unmade.
If that sounds painful, there’s every chance it will be. Foreshadowing the final, Murray remarked with a wry smile: “I’ll have to be ready for the pain. I hope it’s a painful match because that means it will be a good one.”