It was ugly, tense and thrilling – as with nearly every match between Andy Murray and David Ferrer – and for the 13th time the Scot prevailed, exhausted after three hours and 19 minutes on Rod Laver Arena, relieved to be in the semi-finals of the 2016 Australian Open.
Murray won 6-3, 6-7 (5-7), 6-2, 6-3 but might have wrapped it up in three had he not faltered in the tie-break. A turning point arrived when organisers closed the roof near the beginning of the third set, which pleased Murray and seriously upset Ferrer.
“It made it a little bit easier to return as it was quite windy earlier,” Murray said. “It was good for us to get a little break because we played some brutal rallies. I like playing indoors. I grew up in Scotland. The weather’s not quite like here. The start wasn’t so good, a lot of unforced errors, but we started playing a lot of long rallies in the second and third sets.”
It took Murray nearly 20 minutes of the match on a sweltering day – the forecast storms failing to arrive as scheduled – to crack the Spaniard’s resolve in a drawn-out third game in which the net took a proper pounding.
He double-faulted for deuce but held for 4-1 and the player who has taken him to four sets in each of their four grand slam encounters looked more vulnerable than at any time in the tournament.
Ferrer always comes well prepared, though. As Murray remarked the other day when reminded that Ferrer was about to turn 34, “He obviously works extremely hard. He’s in good shape. He fights so hard in every single match. He’s been rewarded for that with an unbelievably consistent career at the top of the game.”
And now they were joined in battle for the 19th time, Murray a winner 12 already, three in slams.
They both needed every working muscle in an extraordinary lob-smash-lob rally on Murray’s serve in the ninth game, his last effort skidding outside the paint to give Ferrer a look. When Murray’s next backhand went long, Ferrer had two break points to play with, but Murray got to deuce with an ace and took the set with a withering forehand after 45 minutes.
Ferrer had been the only player left in the men’s draw who had not dropped a set in the tournament, giving up just 48 games, but each win was fashioned in the same dogged fashion, whatever the level of opponent, and any opponent would reckon tiredness should kick in sooner or later.
There was no immediate evidence of it, and Ferrer fashioned a break point at the first time of asking in the second set, Murray making it easy for him with his second double-fault.
When Ferrer won an all-out hitting battle for 3-0 after 10 minutes, the match took on a slightly different complexion. Murray needed to mix up the pace and style of the exchanges if Ferrer was not to settle into a familiar grinding rhythm at the back of the court.
The quality of some of the rallies was astonishing and Murray gradually worked his way back into the match as Ferrer’s racketwork grew ragged under pressure, and he gave up his serve in the seventh game with three unforced errors.
Distracted by a photographer’s wavering bright blue umbrella in his sight-line on serve at 3-4, Murray briefly lost concentration. A misjudged drop shot dragging him into a deuce battle but he saved break point and he was relieved to see Ferrer’s final shot drift wide.
Murray messed up a break point that would have put him within sight of a two-set lead, and Ferrer held to extend the fight.
Murray needed an ace to save the set, and another to hold for 5-5, the most timely rediscovery of his serve. Almost inevitably they went to the tie-break, where Ferrer went 4-1 up then served for the set at 6-5, ecstatic when Murray’s final forehand went long.
There was further distraction and woe at the start of the third, when Murray complained about the lingering TV image on the big screen during play. He now had two opponents: himself and Ferrer.
But then he got a break – literally: shortly after forcing Ferrer to net a routine backhand for 3-1, Murray turned to see tournament director Craig Tiley walk on to announce the roof would be closed because of advancing thunder and lightning. Ferrer wasn’t happy. Murray headed for the players’ tunnel.
There were away for only nine minutes, pretty much cutting the match into two halves. The roof was on and the ball would bounce lower and slower, slightly favouring Murray, who learned his early tennis indoor on hardcourts in Scotland, but he had to save break point again after his fifth and sixth double-faults.
Murray blew a couple of key points on Ferrer’s serve that would have taken him to 5-1 and serving for the set. He looked suitably hot and bothered; at least the air-conditioning had clicked in to cool the arena under the roof.
Soon enough, Ferrer, whose game was slowly unravelling, gifted him the set when he misjudged a charge and netted. The struggle was now mostly his.
Murray broke again in the sixth game, saved after another double fault and, after a 25-shot rally, left Ferrer sprawled on the ground swishing at a pistol-crack forehand down the line. The Spaniard hit long – but held serve to stay in the fight.
There was still plenty of pressure on Murray as he went to the line with ball in hand to finish the job as his serve had proved unreliable throughout the match. His radar was on, however, and his arm flowed hard and true. Ferrer crumbled at the other end, ground down at last, his parting shot a tired forehand landing in the tramlines.
This article was written by Kevin Mitchell in Melbourne, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 27th January 2016 07.58 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010