Andy Murray will line up opposite Novak Djokovic in the 2016 Australian Open final after he defeated Milos Raonic 4-6, 7-5, 6-7(4), 6-4, 6-2 in a thrilling semi-final clash on Friday.
The tournament's second seed weathered an early storm and showcased his elite stamina in the five-set barnburner, where an apparent injury in the fourth set saw the tide turn against Raonic, who was leading at the time.
Raonic looked capable of an upset early on, but a rising error count meant his opponent was permitted back into the fixture, with the Canadian making 78 unforced errors.
As tennis writer Chris Goldsmith pointed out, Andy won't be the only Murray in action on finals weekend at the Australian Open:
Chris Goldsmith @TheTennisTalker
Great to see @andy_murray join brother @jamie_murray in Australian Open finals weekend. @judmoo congratulations! #ausopen1/29/2016, 12:47:12 PM
Andy Murray will make his fifth career appearance in the Australian Open final on Sunday and will look to end his Melbourne hoodoo against Djokovic, having lost three of his previous four final visits against the Serb.
The Rod Laver Arena was left slightly stunned by just how quickly Raonic bolted out of the gates in Friday's semi-final, breaking Murray in the opener before coming back from 40-love down on his serve to claim a two-game lead.
Then fans began to see more of the Murray who has shone on this stage so many times in the past, and an astonishing, stretched backhand kept him in it at 3-2, as shown by beIN Sports:
beIN SPORTS @beINSPORTS
What a shot! Absolutely amazing reach from @andy_murray to beat his opponent down the line. #AusOpen https://t.co/0xNDQgUoBy1/29/2016, 9:05:55 AM
Powerful groundstrokes meant Raonic looked confident in maintaining his lead and might have even taken a second break at 5-2, which would have effectively sealed the first set. Murray collected his thoughts at 40-30, however, serving out the game with a terrific forehand down the line.
It proved only to be a delay for the inevitable, though, and Raonic finished with a challenge that proved well-placed to take the first set 6-4. Team GB nevertheless held high hopes for Murray, who had "plenty of time" for a comeback:
Team GB @TeamGB
First blood to Raonic as he takes the first set 6-4. Plenty of time for @andy_murray to turn things around #AusOpen https://t.co/jZ3L8D2AIh1/29/2016, 9:20:06 AM
After an initially shaky start to the second set, Murray got his serve on track to breeze into a 1-0 lead. The longer rallies began to turn in favour of the Briton, who was making more of the unforced errors.
Finding the shots to beat the towering Raonic was a chore for the Scot, who came up short on several lob attempts. His frustrations were clear when he questioned the manner of Raonic's challenges, at which point Australian musician Paul Dempsey took umbrage to the break in play:
Paul Dempsey @PaulDempsey
Did Murray just try to order a drink from the chair umpire??1/29/2016, 9:29:56 AM
Both players defended their serve to a high standard, and it was the net play of the Canadian in particular that allowed him to fend off Murray's advances and keep the scores level at three games apiece.
One thing evident in Murray's performance was his confidence in his own strokes had certainly risen, allowing him to attempt audacious efforts, such as this lob at 30-love down in the eighth game, per Eurosport UK TV:
Eurosport UK @EurosportUKTV
A delicate lob from @andy_murray, he made it look so easy! #AusOpen @BritishTennis https://t.co/CxkluAXeuZ1/29/2016, 10:03:22 AM
The rising trend of Raonic mistakes was perfectly summed up in the last game of the set, too, where after surviving the previous 10 service games without dropping, he hit the net at a crucial juncture to fall 7-5.
The third set was close to a replica of the second, except this time Raonic managed to push it all the way to a tiebreak, where it was he who came out on top thanks in large part to his steadfast service game. It seemed as though any challenge the 25-year-old went for turned in his favour, and combined with a 91 percent winning ratio on his first serve, there was little Murray could do to stop his foe growing into the match.
Raonic sealed his tiebreak win with his 13th ace of the encounter, at which point tennis commentator Rob Koenig highlighted his strong record when leading under such circumstances:
Rob Koenig @RobKoenigTennis
Raonic is 18-3 when leading 2 sets to 1....1/29/2016, 11:21:58 AM
Murray was destined to struggle keeping Raonic in tow after the Canadian served first in the fourth set. Considering the latter's serving form up to that point, mistakes would seem hard to come by on his part.
A silver lining appeared for Murray, though, after Raonic went to receive treatment following the third set, and the 2013 Wimbledon champion might have seen this as the opening he needed to stage a comeback.
Any injury didn't appear to have great effect on the Canadian, and Raonic lost just three points in his opening three service games of the fourth set.
Christopher Clarey of the New York Times noted his rally success was level across the board at 3-3:
Christopher Clarey @christophclarey
Milos Raonic Rallies of 0-4 shots 80 won, 77 lost Rallies of 5-8 shots 22 won, 20 lost Rallies of 9+ shot 7 won, 7 lost1/29/2016, 11:27:52 AM
It was at this point, after 42 games, Murray finally managed to break Raonic and find his route back into the match. And what a break it was as his opponent failed to get a point on the board, hitting into the net, while Murray's return ability rose to the fore.
The British contender clearly wasn't at his best in what was an error-strewn display, but he managed to prolong Raonic's frustration after holding to claim a 5-3 lead.
The Australian Open emphasised the close nature of the tie:
#Murray consolidates the break to lead #Raonic 5-3. Get ready to settle in for the long haul tweeps. #ausopen https://t.co/jjX75ndeS41/29/2016, 11:55:53 AM
Commentators took note of the slower manner with which Raonic was moving, but his serve didn't appear troubled as he reduced the deficit to 5-4, forcing Murray to serve out for the set. The Scot happily obliged as the match was forced to a decisive fifth set.
Unfortunately, the contest broke down as Raonic seemed to succumb to whatever blow had forced him off court early in the fourth set, although Goldsmith suggested his demise was all mental:
Chris Goldsmith @TheTennisTalker
Has anyone actually thought Murray breaking serve & also Raonic missing 2 break points late in that 4th set is the real reason Milos upset?1/29/2016, 12:16:57 PM
Whatever the cause, the dark horse was obliterated to 15 in his opening serve, and that was all the opening Murray needed to serve out the remainder of the match and end his opponent's run.
Sparks of Raonic's former glory shone through, but the shots simply stopped falling for him as Murray ran rampant. Despite Raonic's admirable fight through apparent injury, the Scot sealed a dominant ending to the match.
After the semi-final victory, Murray has just one day of rest before taking on the world No. 1 for a fourth rendition of their Australian Open showdown, with the British challenger yet to triumph over the Serb.
Murray will need to recover swiftly from a draining day's work if he's to stop Djokovic from adding to his Grand Slam collection in Melbourne, while Raonic will look upon Friday's defeat as a learning experience.
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