Considering some of the pressing issues Murray has been facing over this fortnight, it is no mean feat that he has gone so far on the hard courts of Melbourne. He knew heading into this event that there was always the possibility that his wife could give birth to their first child ahead of schedule, and said that he would pull out of the tournament and fly home if that was necessary. Surely, the wellbeing of his wife Kim has been foremost on his mind. But, as if that was not enough to give the 28-year-old cause for concern, his father-in-law Nigel Sears had a serious incident while sitting in the stands watching his charge Ana Ivanovic facing the American Madison Keys in a third round contest.
Sears collapsed during that match and had to be taken to the hospital. The incident caused a long delay in the Ivanovic-Keys duel, which Keys eventually won in three sets. Murray, meanwhile, was playing simultaneously against No. 32 seed Joao Sousa, prevailing in four hard sets. He would go to visit Sears later on, and was clearly preoccupied with that situation. Sears improved, but the emotional Murray was deeply concerned about him. After he took out the Australian Bernie Tomic in his next assignment under the lights in the round of 16—recording a straight set victory—Murray was candid about what had happened away from the court and how it had altered his psyche in certain respects.
Be that as it may, Murray had a day off after the Tomic confrontation, and then set his sights on the quarterfinal he would contest against Ferrer, the No. 8 seed who had played with such verve and reliability throughout the tournament. In fact, Ferrer had not lost a set on his way to the appointment with Murray, taking apart Lleyton Hewitt 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 in the Australian’s farewell match, and crushing big John Isner in another straight set demolition. Ferrer was playing some of his best tennis in a good long while. Despite losing his last five head to head duels with Murray, and standing at 6-12 in their career series, the 33-year-old Spaniard has a limitless reservoir of pride, and he clearly came into this duel with Murray ready to do anything it would take to win.
And yet, Murray is a ferocious competitor in his own right, and he seemed in the right frame of mind as he took the court with his old and revered rival. But the first set would be settled by one critical and unexpected lapse from the Spaniard. Serving at 1-2, Ferrer established a 40-0 lead, but a stream of unprovoked mistakes cost him the next three points. At deuce, Murray cagily coaxed a mistake from his adversary, sending an off speed forehand down the line that Ferrer mistimed off the backhand. Having lost four points in a row, Ferrer found himself break point down. He connected with a first serve, but Murray answered with a solid forehand return down the middle. Ferrer pressed, netting a forehand, losing his serve in the process.
It was 3-1 for Murray, who rolled to 40-15 in the following game, only to drive a two-hander into the net. He then double faulted for deuce, but Murray collected the next two points to hold on for 4-1. Murray surged to 5-2 and had a set point on the Spaniard’s serve in the eighth game. Ferrer saved it with a superb inside out forehand inducing an error, and so Murray had to serve the set out at 5-3, never an easy proposition against a returner of Ferrer’s caliber.
Unsurprisingly, Murray had no facile time holding. He was down 15-40 in that crucial ninth game, but served prodigiously when it counted. At 15-40, he sent a first serve wide to Ferrer’s forehand and the Spaniard missed the return. Murray followed with an ace down the T, another unanswerable first serve to the forehand, and a forehand winner down the line set up by a stinging first serve. Set to Murray, 6-3. After that clutch display of serving, he was off and running.
But Ferrer soon found his rhythm and his range. With Murray’s intensity dropping decidedly, Ferrer went to work with characteristic discipline, determination, and vigor. Ferrer held at 30 for 1-0 and then broke Murray in the next game on a double fault from the No. 2 seed. Ferrer held comfortably for 3-0. He had won 12 of 17 points to commence that second set. Both players held to make it 4-1 for the Spaniard, but now Murray had his bearings again and he raised his game considerably to collect three games in a row to level the score at 4-4.
Murray had a sizable opening in the ninth game. Ferrer was down 15-40. It was double break point for the British player, who was dictating again and picking Ferrer apart with variety, power, superior serving and impressive athleticism. Yet Murray squandered his opening here flagrantly. On the first break point, he stepped into the court for a backhand and drove it long as he tried to attack. Then he netted a forehand approach shot, much to his dismay. Ferrer held on for 5-4.
The level of tennis was rising through this stretch on both sides of the net. Murray made a brave stand at 4-5, saving a set point with his favorite serve down the T in the ad court for an ace, fading away from Ferrer with slice. Murray held on for 5-5. They proceeded to a tie-break, and Murray was always under duress in that sequence. He bungled a high backhand volley wide to go down a mini-break at 2-1. Ferrer stretched that lead to 4-1 and then 5-3 before Murray gamely rallied to make it 5-5.
He was two points away from sealing the set and gaining control of the match, but Murray was too passive on his serve. Ferrer seized the initiative, approaching the net behind a crackling forehand, putting away a high forehand volley. When Murray steered a forehand down the line wide on the following point to take the tie-break 7-5, Ferrer had surged back to one set all. The second set had lasted no less than 71 minutes. The match was nearly two hours old. And Murray had put forth a large effort to salvage the set that went unrewarded.
The fact remains that he remained remarkably composed under the circumstances. Casting aside his disappointment, marching forward resolutely, realizing he could still be victorious if he could sustain his aggression, Murray settled down nicely in the early stages of the pivotal third set. After both players held comfortably across the first three games, Murray pounced. At 1-2, Ferrer double faulted for 15-40, and then Murray released a scorching backhand return that left Ferrer helpless. It was 3-1 for the British player, who had reestablished his momentum.
But then the retractable roof had to be raised with rain threatening nearby. After a relatively short delay, Murray immediately was in some jeopardy. A double fault put him down 30-40, but he saved the break point with a heavy second serve kicker that Ferrer could not handle. Another double fault from Murray gave the Spaniard a second break point, but Murray erased that one with an impeccable forehand drive volley down the line. He took the next point and then drove a forehand down the line for a clean winner, taking that ball exceedingly early.
Murray had moved to 4-1, and soon travelled to 15-40 in a quest to gain an insurance break. Nothing doing. Murray netted a forehand down the line and then pulled a two-hander wide after skillfully opening up the court. Ferrer held on for 2-4, but Murray was not discouraged. He held at 15 for 5-2 after roaring to 40-0 with three consecutive unstoppable first serves. With his self conviction restored, Murray broke again to capture the set 6-2, concluding the eighth game with a a flat backhand crosscourt winner and a two-hander struck sublimely down the line that was unmanageable for the Spaniard.
Murray was right where he wanted to be, ahead two sets to one, and largely controlling the tempo. He held for 1-0 with a dazzling running forehand passing shot down the line and then broke for 2-0. Seemingly within striking distance of victory, Murray briefly faltered in the third game of the fourth set. He was broken at 15, serving a double fault and making a pair of unforced groundstroke errors in that game. Ferrer held easily for 2-2, and seemed to have the spring back in his step.
Murray, however, was unruffled. He held at 30 for 3-2, serving a pair of aces in that game. Now he was ready for the homestretch. With Ferrer serving at 2-3, 30-30, Murray threw up a high defensive lob, testing the Spaniard’s overhead as he did on a few other important points during the course of the match. Ferrer netted the smash, and then Murray forced the Spaniard behind the baseline with a deep crosscourt forehand. Ferrer made the forced error, and once more Murray was up a break, taking a 4-2 lead.
And yet, Murray wandered into difficulty again in the seventh game, double faulting to fall behind 30-40. He put on his thinking cap here, going to his trustworthy first serve down the T. That serve had been so accurate and even deadly throughout the battle that the enterprising Ferrer was unable to respond to the challenge of it. This one elicited a short return, and Murray came forward to drive a forehand winner into the clear. The next point was vintage Murray. Ferrer punched a backhand volley crisply down the line, but Murray timed his running forehand passing shot impeccably, curling that shot in for a sparkling winner. Murray went back to the T serve recipe on the next point, drawing an errant return from Ferrer.
It was 5-2 for the man from Great Britain, and there was no stopping him now. Ferrer held one last time for 3-5, but Murray served out the match with gusto to win in three hours and twenty minutes. He was the better man from the backcourt, the superior returner, and he displayed more tactical acuity than Ferrer. More often than not, Murray beat Ferrer to the punch, and he was the much more complete player. Perhaps more than anything else, Murray’s serve carried him to this victory. Of his 127 deliveries in the contest, 40 were unreturned by the Spaniard (31%). Ferrer served 117 points and only 13% of his deliveries were unreturned. Murray lost his serve only twice in four sets, while Ferrer was broken six times.
The world’s second ranked player should be proud to be among the four semifinalists. He will take on Milos Raonic next, and that will be an arduous match, but Murray must be the favorite in this skirmish. Despite his many distractions, despite having a very short off season after ending a long 2015 campaign by leading Great Britain to their first Davis Cup victory since 1936, despite everything he has endured, Andy Murray is around for the last weekend of the first major in the year 2016.
As Murray said after his triumph over Ferrer, “You want to try to get to the latter stages [of these events] to give yourself opportunities. Obviously I want to win these events. That’s why I’m still playing. After at tough year in 2014, I think I’m now sort of reestablished at the top of the game and giving myself chances.”
Murray is not taking this opportunity to make the final of another major for granted. I am absolutely certain that he will put himself fully on the line against Raonic and leave no stone unturned in his pursuit of victory. Their confrontation could well turn into a classic.