Second seed Andy Murray earned a berth in the 2016 French Open final with a four-set victory (6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2) Friday over No. 3 seed and defending champion Stan Wawrinka.
Murray, who was pushed to five sets in each of his first two tournament matches, rebounded and put together one of his best performances of the year in the semifinals. His serving was nothing short of outstanding and, aside from a one-game lapse late in the third set, his shot-making baffled Wawrinka.
The victory sends him into a championship clash with top-ranked Novak Djokovic, who's looking to complete the career Grand Slam, on Sunday.
Murray came into the match as a slight favorite after coming back from a couple of early tournament scares to reach the penultimate round. BBC Sport noted he understood it would take a terrific effort to knock out the event's reigning champion.
"Stan is obviously playing great tennis," Murray said. "It is going to be extremely difficult, [but] hopefully I can play my best tennis and reach my first final here."
He ended up doing exactly that to punch his ticket to the championship match.
The Swiss star missed an opportunity to gain immediate control of the first set. He had a break point to grab a 2-0 lead after holding at love in his opening service game, but Murray managed to survive following an extended battle at deuce.
As is often the case in those situations, a player who just missed a chance at a break tends to lose focus in the very next game. Sure enough, the No. 2 seed took advantage of a brief lapse from the defending champion to earn the only break of the first set.
Murray served it out from there, navigating a storm in the final game that included three break points to put Wawrinka in a hole for the first time since Round 1.
Stuart Fraser of the Daily Mail noted it also ended two streaks that would be considered troublesome for the Scottish sensation coming into the match:
Stuart Fraser @stu_fraser
Andy Murray wins his first ever set against Stan Wawrinka on clay. And big to stop the rot with first set in last eight played vs the Swiss.2016-6-3 14:15:20
Brad Gilbert of ESPN pointed out the key was Murray's well-rounded approach:
Brad Gilbert @bgtennisnation
Muzzard having a lot of success using drop shots and also variety of shot with the occasional attaching shots2016-6-3 14:24:07
Murray continued rolling right along in the second. He lost just two points on serve the entire set and broke Wawrinka twice in a row to secure a 5-1 lead before closing it out at 6-2. It was also far less of a grind than the first, which featured a multitude of extended rallies.
His variety continued to prevent the third seed from finding a rhythm. Not only was he hitting heavy shots off both wings, highlighted by some great backhands that rivaled Wawrinka's biggest weapon, but he won all six points when coming to net, too.
Eleanor Crooks of the Press Association explained there were times during the second set when the champ simply had no answers:
Eleanor Crooks @EleanorcrooksPA
Stan doesn't know what to do at the moment and Murray breaks to love. Playing at a different level to rest of the tournament2016-6-3 14:26:19
Tumaini Carayol of Tennis View Magazine felt it was the highest level of play Murray had showcased since the start of 2016:
Tumaini Carayol @tumcarayol
Murray leads Wawrinka 6-4 6-2. By far the best pair of sets he has played all year. By. Far.2016-6-3 14:45:50
The 2012 Olympic gold medalist finally blinked late in the third set. The pair traded service holds for the first nine games of the set and Murray had given Wawrinka basically nothing to work with, losing just one point in four holds.
Alas, he left the door slightly open while serving at 4-5 and the "Stanimal" took full advantage. He scored the break to win the third and, after getting the crowd fired up with his best Rafael Nadal impression coming out of the changeover, the fans erupted in his favor.
Roland Garros spotlighted the reaction:
Le roi n’est pas mort : Wawrinka breake Murray pour aller remporter le 3ème set devant une foule en délire ! #RG16 https://t.co/HbA5hbR4Nr2016-6-3 15:27:29
In the old days, that's the type of moment that could have sent Murray off the rails. He struggled to regain focus after losing those key games early in his career, and the crowd getting in his opponent's corner only exacerbated the problem.
His vastly improved maturity was on display Friday. He still has some hot-headed moments, but he does a much better job of channeling that energy into success rather than failure. In this case, he came right back out to earn a break in the first game of the fourth set.
There were a couple of tense moments during the middle of the set, but any remaining doubt disappeared when Murray secured a second break before serving out the match.
His brother, Jamie, had high praise for the semifinal effort:
Jamie Murray @jamie_murray
Amazing performance from Andy - one of the best I've ever seen from him. RG finals!!!2016-6-3 15:59:49
Looking ahead, Murray advances to face Djokovic in his first French Open final. It will mark the 34th career meeting between the "Big Four" rivals. Djokovic holds a 23-10 advantage overall, but Murray did win the most recent meeting, the Rome final on clay, in straight sets.
The biggest key for the Murray will be finding a way to limit his errors. Djokovic is one of the few players capable of matching the Scot's defensive abilities. In his semifinal against Dominic Thiem, Djokovic let the young Austrian beat himself, finishing with just 15 winners in a routine win.
Murray must be willing to slug it out in some extended rallies rather than try to end points quickly. If he does want to take some chances, do it by coming forward to net to force the 11-time Grand Slam winner to hit high-quality passing shots to win the point.
The end result should be an entertaining final. The winner will be a first-time French Open champion, regardless of who comes out on top.
Last year's champion offered no excuses following his semifinal exit. He gave full credit to Murray for a terrific performance, as relayed by Reem Abulleil of Sport360.
"I think Andy played so well today, he was the strongest on the court, it's as simple as that," Wawrinka said.
BBC Sport noted Murray didn't think playing a match for the French Open title was within reach after struggling to play his best tennis on the surface earlier in his career.
"I'm extremely proud," the No. 2 seed said. "I never expected to reach the final here, I always struggled on the clay. I hope I can put on a good match on Sunday."
He also reiterated his comments from before the match about needing to showcase top form in order to play for the championship, according to the ATP World Tour.
"I knew today if I wanted to win I was going to have to play one of my best clay-court matches," Murray said. "Stan's record here the past two years has been unbelievable. He was playing better every match here. I played one of my best matches today. I'm looking forward to the final now."
All match statistics courtesy of the tournament's official site.