It was, by Andy Murray’s own admission, not his finest two hours and 12 minutes on a tennis court, but it would take a very particular form of pedant to deconstruct his 6-3 6-3 6-1 tonking of Kei Nishikori and find fault.
Murray was safely through to his fifth consecutive Grand Slam semifinal and his third consecutive last four place here in Melbourne. The most important statistic of the day was that Scotland’s finest had won. That is all that matters. Whoever wins the title on Sunday will not be remembered for the quality of their quarterfinal performance; they will only be heralded as a winner.
But for the pedants out there – and every sports fan has an inner geek – Murray’s figures were a little like the curate’s egg: good in parts. His accuracy with his first serve was a meagre 44 per cent, while his break-point conversion rate was only 39 per cent (he had 18 break-point opportunities in all) while he dropped his own serve twice. On the flip side, he did break Nishikori seven times and he landed 85 per cent of his returns. All in all, the good bits outweighed the ordinary bits and the whole package was too much for Nishikori to handle.
“I think I just didn't play good enough to beat him,” Nishikori said simply. “He was making me run side to side all the time. Same time was tough for me to play longer points.”
For this match, Ivan Lendl was willing to leave “player box cam” alone (he had draped it in a towel and put a hat on it in the previous round) and, instead, he happily smiled for the television viewers as his new pupil got to work. Yes, you did read that right: he smiled. He smiled quite a bit. Then again, given that Murray was never under pressure, Lendl had plenty to smile about.
Nishikori is not the easiest of opponents to come to grips with. He moves like a whippet with its tail on fire and he loves to lean into his forehand. Refusing to be beaten, he tried to chase down every lost cause and, on occasion, he caught up with it, too, so prolonging the rally and take the Muzz by surprise. When he ran down a Murray lob and hit a between-the-legs shot back in play (a “tweener”), Murray could only respond with a tame high volley. That was punished with a winner and Nishikori punched the air in victory. He was already 3-1 down in the first set by that stage, but he had made his point: he was not going to roll over for anybody.
When Murray tried a similar trick a handful of points later, he almost put the very future of British tennis in jeopardy. As he chased after a smash, he tried a tweener in mid-air, missed the tennis ball and almost did himself a terrible mischief with the follow-through. Team Murray winced in unison. When the slow motion replay was played back on the big screens, those of a nervous and sensitive disposition had to avert their gaze. And Muzz lost the point to boot.
“There were quite a few good rallies,” Murray said. “He came up with some good shots. A lot of the long points, the fun rallies, he was winning, he came up with some great shots. But I was just a little bit more solid today and probably had a little bit more in the tank than he did. He played three long matches. With the way that he plays, he needs to play a lot of long rallies. That was to my advantage today.”
Having come through five rounds with the minimum of fuss, Murray feels he is in good nick for the business end of the tournament and this is where the workload increases dramatically. By the time he got off court, there were only five men left standing in the singles draw and they were the world’s five best players. Now every game is vital, every set is do-or-die and Murray is preparing for a brutal few days. His next opponent will be either Novak Djokovic or David Ferrer and both men present their own problems on a tennis court.
“I haven't played over two hours really for the last few matches,” Murray said. “So, yeah, I feel fresh. Hopefully that will be to my advantage going into the weekend. I have to play a lot of long rallies, for sure, against the guys that are still left in the tournament. So I'll need my legs to be fresh for the next few matches.
“I saw Novak's match with Lleyton. That was the only match of his I'd seen. He was hitting the ball very well. David, I saw a bit of his match with Gasquet. He's always solid. He's always very good. He never plays poor matches. He's a tough guy to play.”
By the time he gets back on court, Murray is hoping that he will have been able to sort out his first serve and will be ready for whatever Djokovic or Ferrer can throw at him. After a straight forward run so far, Andy Murray’s Australian Open is about to begin in earnest.