January 29, 2016
Andy Murray’s amazing fighting spirit and ability to focus brought him through a five-set epic against Milos Raonic, the climax only spoilt by an injury to the big Canadian.
Had the Scot’s stubborn streak not kicked in, however, he would not have been able to remain in the contest until the younger man’s body failed him.
As it was, the deciding set became a 6-2 formality, whereas those that came before were of the highest quality and provided the kind of spell-binding spectacle that makes us all love tennis so much.
The winner’s prize, a final against the near-perfect Novak Djokovic, with Murray’s energy reserves already running low, is not exactly the most enviable gift world sport has ever seen.
Some might even argue that defeat for Murray would have been a blessing in disguise. No man in the Open era has ever lost four finals at a Grand Slam venue and then gone on to win that Slam. Murray has been a runner-up four times in Melbourne. It will take a minor miracle for that not to become five. But he has more than earned the right to see what he can conjure on the big day.
With all the family distractions he has had to deal with, we should be saluting Murray’s ability to battle his way through to the final at all. His pregnant wife Kim and her father Nigel, who recently collapsed watching the tennis in Melbourne, will have to wait a little longer to see him again.
You have to feel for Raonic, who was on the verge of history and became hampered by a nagging groin strain, just when he must have felt the match was almost his.
The 25-year-old can still be immensely proud of himself. Not since he started playing tennis at the age of 8 has Raonic enjoyed moments quite like these. And if a fit Raonic keeps showing this kind of form, he might even replace Rafa Nadal in the so-called “Big Four,” alongside Djokovic, Federer and Murray.
Murray has reached his ninth Grand Slam final. Andy and Jamie Murray have therefore become the first brothers in the Open era to reach the finals in the men’s singles and men’s doubles events at a Grand Slam. How proud their mother Judy must be, so soon after their Davis Cup triumph.
Raonic had been aiming to become the first Canadian man in history to reach a Grand Slam final and only the second Canadian player, after Eugenie Bouchard reached the Wimbledon final in 2014. The chance to make history. Motivation doesn’t come much higher than that, but he couldn’t quite get over the line. Even so, his progress is remarkable.
Much of the credit for the rate at which Raonic has improved must go to Carlos Moya, his new coach, although 1987 Wimbledon champion Pat Cash was also taking some of the credit.
Cash, now 50, said just before the match: ‘Milos has been picking my brains about the serve-and-volley, he’s a really switched-on guy.’
Murray had always found Raonic a tricky customer, with their previous meetings split at three wins apiece. True, Andy had won their only meeting at a major on his way to his first Grand Slam title, at the US Open in 2012. But Raonic has improved since then. In fact he has never played better than 2016. The signs looked particularly ominous for Murray early on.
Raonic came out fighting from the start and broke Andy to love. Once again, the world number two swore loudly as he admonished himself for being caught so cold.
Although the Brit had break points of his own to hit straight back, he squandered them – leaving the big man to consolidate and grow in confidence. It wasn’t a position Raonic was prepared to surrender for the rest of the first set, which the underdog took 6-4.
Murray gathered his thoughts and set about trying to tap into his best tennis. There were signs that he might find a richer vein of form, but could he mine it, could he exploit it?
Andy had chances to break in each of the first three Raonic service games in that second set, and yet he squandered each opening. Would he grow frustrated, or would he stay patient in the knowledge that he had at least returned well enough to earn those promising positions?
Threatened at 4-4, Murray yelled at himself to “fire up” and he did just that, meaning that Raonic was now serving to stay in the set. Although Milos fended off Murray the first time, he began to crack when he served at 5-6. A double fault brought Andy to 30-all, a drop-shot helped him to set point, and then Raonic dabbed a backhand volley into the net. Murray had levelled at one set all – and now it was the British favourite who appeared to have all the momentum.
In previous years, Raonic might have crumbled at this point. Instead, seeking the inner calm he says coach Carlos Moya has given him, Raonic found the composure to put the fizz and rhythm back into his serve – and soon he was more than holding his own again.
In fact Milos enjoyed 0-30 on the Murray serve at 4-4 and 5-5, threatening to take the third set even before the inevitable tie-break, until the Scot bravely salvaged both games with some incredible tennis.
But Murray’s second serve, never a strong-point in his game, let him down in the tie-break itself, and Raonic pounced to take the set 7-6 (7-4).
There were times when Murray’s second serve looked vulnerable in the fourth set, too. Yet he compensated with a dazzling array of groundstrokes, not only to hold, but crucially to break Raonic to love in the eighth game.
That was the opening Murray needed and he was ready to serve for the set at 5-4. Raonic, who had already required attention for a what appeared to be a mild groin strain, called the trainer back on before the key game.
For a while it appeared to work, as the Canadian sparked back into life to earn two break points. Murray dug deep to turn the tables, close out the set 6-4 and level the match at two sets all.
That’s where it all began to unravel for Milos. He dropped his serve in the opening game of the deciding set and smashed his racquet in frustration, feeling the pain of his injury more, it seemed, with every stretch. In the end Raonic did well to take two games as Murray began to break at will.
With Novak Djokovic waiting in the final, the honour of facing him in the Melbourne show piece would appear to be something of a poisoned chalice. However, as Stan Wawrinka showed in Paris last year, all-out aggression, when matched with uncanny accuracy, can occasionally get the better of the fearsome Serb.
And who wouldn’t want to earn that long shot? If defeat comes, as expected, then retaining the right to call himself “second only to Djokovic” is the consolation. That’s no mean feat these days, given how dominant Novak has become.
The other finals will hold a particular fascination for British fans. As previously mentioned, Jamie Murray plays in the men’s doubles final on Saturday alongside his Brazilian partner, Bruno Soares, against Canada’s Daniel Nestor and the Czech, Radek Stepanek.
And wheelchair tennis star Gordon Reid plays in two finals this weekend. Having reached the men’s singles final already, the Scot and his Japanese partner Shingo Kunieda won their doubles semi-final against Gustavo Fernandez and Joachim Gerard 7-6, 6-2 and now face top seeds Stephane Houdet and Nicolas Peifer from France.