Roger Federer and Andy Murray: the ultimate semifinal showdown.
For now, we know that Novak Djokovic is the king of Melbourne Park. From the start of the 2013 Australian Open, there was an unshakeable sense that there were only two other men, two worthy challengers to the mighty Nole of the slam Down Under that could earnestly dethrone him.
One of them may very well do that in the Men's Singles championship match on Sunday against Djokovic, who demolished Spaniard David Ferrer 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 in his semifinal.
But before they'll have that opportunity, they have no choice but to go through each other.
World No. 2 Roger Federer of Switzerland and world No. 3 Andy Murray of Great Britain will duel for the 20th time in their careers in the second Men's Singles semifinal of the 2013 Australian Open, Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in Melbourne (3:30 a.m. EST), and it's a guaranteed thriller before it's even begun.
Not because the match is a lock to be a five-set classic. It's a pre-established pinnacle of tennis, because the Federer vs. Murray rivalry is undoubtedly about to get a lot bigger in the 2013 season.
As a result, the ramifications that this Australian Open encounter creates between the aging but brilliant Swiss and the artful Scot, who is finally living up to expectations, will be indispensable for the rest of the year.
The overall head-to-head stands at 10-9 in favor of Murray; Federer has not held the advantage in their matchup since his very first win over the Scot. But their career dynamic is not so simple.
Federer leads their Grand Slam head-to-head by 3-0, although their final at last year's Wimbledon Championships was a closer affair, in which Murray took his first set in a Slam final ever.
2012 was by far the most progressive in terms of their rivalry: The aforementioned Wimbledon final left Federer with a record-tying seventh Wimbledon trophy, and Murray with teary eyes and a fresh motivation to succeed at the highest level.
A month later, Murray stood on the same blessed grounds at SW19, holding the Olympic Gold Medal in his hands, Federer standing next to him with a wounded half-smile and a silver medal around his neck. Murray would go on to round out the season by winning his first Grand Slam at the U.S. Open.
Obviously, there's going to be a lot of hunger and yearning when these two walk out onto Rod Laver Arena, Friday night.
As always between true greats of the game, any meeting between 17-time Grand Slam champion Federer and newly crowned U.S. Open winner Murray is going to be magnetic, particularly in the semifinals of a major. Here are some strategies that each player will try to apply in the highly anticipated encounter.
Federer's winning tactics are always going to be adaptable: They are made up of a series of skill sets that can be tinkered and harmonized into something refreshed and emphatic depending on who is on the other side of the net. Still without any signs of slowing down or fading, they are as perfect as they are lethal, as varied as they are a consistent and they have clearly been firing on all cylinders during this year's Australian Open.
- High First Serve Percentage
During the tournament, the Swiss has served incredibly well, but that trend disappeared for most of his quarterfinal match against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Though his first-serve percentage was teetering, he was able to dial up his first delivery yet again in critical moments in the match.
He'll need to serve well from start to finish against a returner as good as Murray, particularly in the ad court, where he'll need to vary his serve more without the aid of his go-to slider out wide. Too many second-serve looks and Federer will be falling behind.
- No Need To Run Around The Backhand
Federer's backhand, as astonishing and outlandish as it may seem, has been impeccable at this year's Australian Open in terms of shot-making, consistency at the back of the court and aggressive returning.
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This is of crucial importance to Federer's game, as it means he can conserve more energy in a draining match against Murray by not being forced to run around his backhand to hit a trademark forehand. He'll be able to hang tough in longer rallies with Murray by relying on this fundamental stroke.
- Use The Slice
This year's courts at the Australian Open appear to be playing the ball faster, making the slice a more useful tool, as it skids off the court more quickly, stays lower to the ground and makes it hard to bend and reach for.
The Swiss Maestro has long been known for his poetic slice and the exquisiteness with which it seems to glide through the court, and he should continue to use it in his match against Murray, who might have trouble getting low to pick it up if he's a little rusty from his easier-than-average draw.
- Putting It All Together: Start Quickly, Stay Ahead
Federer has always been quick out of the blocks. In all of his matches Down Under this year, Federer managed to get an early break and always ultimately clinched the first set (despite getting broken back against Tsonga and being forced to go to a tiebreak in the opener).
If he is able to take the action to Murray with a combination of efficient serving, well-placed backhands—particularly utilizing the down-the-line variety to stretch Murray to the forehand wing—and deep slices to look for opportunities to hit a dictating forehand, then he'll definitely get a jump on the Scot who can sometimes look sluggish at the start of matches (a first set in the bag would be a pretty big plus for an amazing athlete who'll be turning 32 this year).
Murray's strategy to winning a tennis match is methodical and involves careful point construction. He designs rallies with meticulous care and is filled with painstaking frustration if he isn't able to complete the point to his liking—hence his cries of profane dissatisfaction. These days, that isn't much of a problem, as Murray seems to have a keen sense of the dimensionality of the court and what he can do with it.
- Use The Net
Murray has been incredibly efficient at the net at this year's Australian Open. Usually an asset of Federer, Murray has been finishing points appropriately in the forecourt by way of combining big forehand approach shots with quick foot speed to the net.
Should Murray rush Federer with a decent amount of net play, he'll be able to take advantage during any short- to mid-length rallies, especially if there's any hangover from Federer's five setter in the quarterfinals against Tsonga.
- Keep Up The Excellent Returning
Next to Djokovic, Murray is the best returner of service on the planet. His capacity to consistently return first serves at the feet of the server is uncanny and almost downright unfair.
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He's also been particularly adept at aggressiveness on second-serve returns since last summer's breakthrough wins at the Olympics and the U.S. Open, which may be indicative of a rise in confidence. Look for Murray to continue to push the limits on return statistics, putting all of Federer's service games under scrutiny and heavy fire.
- Converting On The Big Points
In his last match against Jeremy Chardy, though not an experienced player at an elite Grand Slam level, Murray converted 8-of-11 break-point chances to seal the deal easily. Because Federer has an excellent first and second serve, Murray won't see a lot of break opportunities, and he'll have to continue to play the same kind of pressure tennis that he has been all tournament.
Murray has been especially strong off the backhand wing on the big points, so he should look for his spots to take ample rips with his two-hander and try to bully Federer around the court, specifically by stretching the Swiss to the forehand side and finishing with an approach shot in the ad court.
- Putting It All Together: Be Aggressive At All Costs
In the past, Murray has been criticized for being too passive in big-match situations. After all, he went 0-4 in his first four Grand Slam finals before winning the U.S. Open last September.
It's going to be vital to his game plan to be aggressive before Federer takes control of the point, because once the Fed-Express begins rolling, it's a pretty tough force to stop.
With focus on his return—which comes naturally to him—getting to net and playing the big points with heavy weight of shot but decent margin inside the lines, Murray can accomplish this aggressive-mindedness and suppress Federer's game.
Are You Not Entertained?
Regardless of who you're pulling for, if playing form in their lead-up matches is any indication—and if history tells us anything—then this semifinal promises to be a breathtaking show. You'll see your fair share of brilliance and daring plays, and it will only be all for the better.
Whether it's Federer or Murray who pulls out the win, no matter how many sets, hours or points are played, there's still a final to be had on Sunday.
Something tells me to get ready for a remarkably entertaining weekend.