Early Sunday morning, and the Great British public has risen early, as one, in the expectation of witnessing something special.
It is the growing burden that Andy Murray has borne since he strode into battle in the Australian Open two weeks ago.
With every passing round, with each bigger foe put to the sword, the battle cries have grown.
Now, finally, the lights blaze over the perfect sweep of the Rod Laver Arena, and the crimson daylight subsides over the Melbourne skyline for the last time.
After two weeks of intense competition, it all comes down to this: Just two men standing.
They are the best that tennis has to offer on this last day of January. The three-time Australian champion, Federer, is attempting to hold off the aspiring first-time champion, Murray.
Federer has done it before, in the U.S. Open, but 18 months, many matches, sharper skills, and increased maturity have swelled the stature of the young Scot’s shoulders.
And there is something more. In the night sky beyond those spotlights, the stars seem to have shifted into alignment. This is Murray’s 17th Grand Slam in his 22nd year, the very number of Slams and years it took Federer to win his first title.
It is also precisely 50 years since Rod Laver won his first Slam, also in his 22nd year, in this very tournament.
To add a little more bloodlust to the Murray game, it was in this very city, almost 15 years ago to the day, that Fred Perry, the last British man to win a Grand Slam 74 years ago, died.
Perhaps that was the final pinch of salt rubbed into the wounds inflicted on Murray by Federer in this final showdown. For it proved to be nothing less than death by a thousand cuts. Meticulous planning, exquisite execution, straight sets.
The Smiling Assassin
The signs were there for all to see during the whole tournament. Federer was relaxed, confident, and exuded bonhomie.
Jokes and banter came thick and fast, particularly at the hands of Jim Courier. That same confidence translated to Federer’s tennis, even when he lost a set—which he did only twice.
With such relaxation came patience, and that was Federer’s extra, unexpected ingredient from the start of the match.
Both players leave fans and critics bereft of adjectives to describe their panoply of shot-making, touch, speed, and intelligence, but Murray and Federer deploy their talents from different standpoints.
Murray is the counter-puncher who can stand his ground with deep or angled ground strokes, varied spin, and dramatic changes of pace. He bides his time, forcing the error from his opponent or making the killer approach or passing shot.
He has the body strength and deftness of hand to create such winners in the blink of an eye.
Federer plays the offensive game, going for winners within two or three shots of a rally. He can defend, but still looks for an opening to attack the net or drive a zipping forehand.
It was this archetypal Federer who won a break of serve in Murray’s first service game. But what immediately became clear was that Federer was also willing and able to play the waiting game: a less archetypal Federer.
Rallies unfolded like chess matches, with both players probing all parts of the court, waiting for an opening. It was enthralling tennis, but a patient Federer, who is hitting his wide repertoire of shots with conviction and accuracy, is a deadly combination.
Murray had new balls to serve at 3-4 down, but Federer, already into a fresh shirt on this humid Melbourne night, calmly fired off a stunning backhand winner followed by a forehand winner to break.
It was first blood and first set, 6-3, to Federer: dynamic in shotmaking, penetrating in tactics, but also patient in point building.
Glint of Steel and Flash of Blade
The second set unfolded in similar fashion. Federer continued to engage with Murray in complex rallies, and continued to defend with patience.
Murray forced him to defend the backhand wing with a constant barrage from his own sliced backhand but failed to break it down.
Time and again, the Federer backhand parried with Murray’s, until it pierced the defence like the thrust of a foil.
With a weakness exposed, Federer found the time and space for a whipped sweep down the line or a dance around the ball for his signature off-forehand winner.
In the blink of an eye, he broke to go 2-1 up and held for a 3-1 advantage.
Federer almost repeated the sword-thrust with a second break, but Murray put up a spirited fight to pull back break points and hold. It was the same flashing blades in the eighth game, and once more Murray fended off the attack.
A familiar steel entered Federer’s eyes as well as his game as he served out a love game to reach 5-3. His next service game was just as incisive, finished off with a searing net attack and winning volley: 6-4.
Silent, Serene Slayer
Still Federer remained calm, relaxed, focused. Murray seemed to be using a sword of base metal against a weapon of finely-sharpened steel, but his heart and legs continued to wield it with energy and belief.
After an easy service game, he gained his first break point chance since the first set, but overplayed a backhand.
Federer held, but in the sixth game, Murray gained three more break points and, with some stunning swordplay at the net, took one of them with a deft passing shot.
The blood rose in Murray’s veins and he continued to attack with gusto to hold his serve easily. He was 5-2 up, and his first serve was beginning to hit the mark.
The crowd roared him on, his box roared him on, and he roared himself on.
The quietest man in the arena was Federer, and despite a few errors from his racket, he radiated calm.
Murray attacked him across the full width of the baseline, but Federer defended confidently, and then silently stepped in to attack the Murray second serve at 30-30.
It was a last-ditch attempt to retrieve the third set, yet it looked like a stroll in the park.
Federer drew one break point, and was aced. He then produced a deceptive backhand slice that dipped so low across the net that it drew a Murray error. Federer had the break back.
The Killer Blow
With the set now even at 5-5, Murray was taken to deuce on his serve, but won the game with an ace. Federer applied a stiletto to the heart with a love service game and Murray, with his 5-2 lead whittled away, now opened the tie-break.
He took the early advantage and a 3-1 lead. He forced the play still further with some outstanding crosscourt winners, and appeared in control as he advanced to 6-4.
Even then, Federer’s concentration stayed firm. He won back one break point, and was gifted the second by a tense Murray.
At 8-9 Federer again served to save the set, and the patience told once more as a 23-stroke rally eventually drew an error from Murray.
The balance switched from set point to championship point three times, until the silent assassin finally outgunned Murray, 13-11. It was a straight-sets victory, a fourth Australian title, and a 16th Grand Slam.
Federer finished as he began. Without fireworks, without roars, without tears, but with a relaxed beam that announced, simply, that he is the best.
And questions now have to be asked. When did Federer ever look more at ease? When did he last play more confidently? When has that backhand ever looked stronger, or those feet more nimble?
Murray, and many who watched this match, will be scratching their heads to find the answers.
But will Federer still be questioned about his motivation, or whether he has the game to withstand the new generation of players who come out with all guns blazing?
However, this was a Grand Slam with all the top players present and correct. Leading the charge was Murray, who hadn’t dropped a set to anyone, was fresh, confident and fitter than he’s ever been.
The problem for Murray and the rest is that Federer came to the battle with an expanded battery of ammunition—an improving net game and a flowering backhand in particular.
Add in the maturity of a man in peak fitness and brimming with confidence, and it looks like Federer has thrown down the gauntlet once more.
Cometh the hour, this man will step up.