The Australian Open hasn’t been straightforward for Andy Murray, the Scot who overcame Milos Raonic 4-6 7-5 6-7 (4-7) 6-4 6-2 in a slugfest Friday to appear in a fifth final in Melbourne.
He entered the tournament knowing that his wife, Kim Sears, was around eight months pregnant. If he wasn’t preoccupied with the upcoming birth of his first child — due in the second week of February — tennis certainly wasn’t the lone thing in the 28-year-old’s thoughts.
Then almost exactly a week ago, his father-in-law and Sears’ father Nigel collapsed while coaching Ana Ivanovic as Murray competed on an adjacent court.
He raced to the hospital after the victory over Joao Sousa and again the next morning, throwing his tennis routine into chaos. He almost pulled out of the year’s first major.
Sears, thankfully, was well enough to return home to the UK.
So Murray stuck it out and got what he wanted Friday: A spot in Sunday’s showpiece.
Whether he can finally oust Novak Djokovic in a huge match — the Serb won six of their seven meetings in 2015 and has toppled Murray in three Australian Open finals — is another matter.
“I have a very good shot on Sunday if I play my best tennis,” Murray told reporters. “I need to do it for long enough to have a chance. I’m aware of that. I don’t think many people are expecting me to win on Sunday.
“I have to just believe in myself, have a solid game plan, and hopefully execute it and play well.”
Murray will first need to absorb and recover from the four-hour semifinal against Raonic, who was so close to becoming the first Canadian man to make a grand slam singles final.
A right leg injury to Raonic visibly hampered the 25-year-old and Murray, who prides himself on his fitness, ruthlessly took advantage. Raonic was left visibly deflated.
“Probably the most heartbroken I felt on court,” Raonic told reporters.
“It’s infuriating for the tournament to end on this note and to have to face this knot in my stomach,” he added on Instagram. “But it’s not the end. Not by any means. I am better than that and I will overcome the challenges my body presents to me, I work far too damn hard and commit every waking moment to tennis.”
So instead of making history for Canada, Murray and older brother Jamie have become the first siblings to land in the men’s singles final and doubles final, respectively, at the same grand slam in the Open Era.
Murray’s left-handed sibling, along with Brazil’s Bruno Soares, will, somewhat ironically, get a Canadian in the final in veteran Daniel Nestor. Nestor’s partner is the Czech Radek Stepanek.
Raonic is known as the “missile” due to his devastating serve, which thus puts him at the head of the queue when considering the game’s next generation of stars. His ground game has also improved, reflected by his success over the last fortnight in reaching a second grand slam semifinal.
It was clear he was intent to be the aggressor against Murray. Overall Raonic struck 72 winners. Murray had 38.
But raggedness accompanied the aggression and Raonic made 78 unforced errors compared to Murray’s 28.
The leg injury, which Raonic said began to bother him in the third set, likely contributed to some of the errors. Yet even in the first two sets he was unable to strike his backhand, his weaker shot, as well as he did in the quarterfinals against Gael Monfils.
Mentally, Murray was also proving a more sizable challenge.
Nonetheless, Raonic began perfectly, breaking to love with three winners. Then he saved three consecutive break points for 2-0. It was all he needed to take a one-set advantage.
“He came out hitting the ball very clean at the beginning,” said Murray. “I didn’t. He adjusted to that quicker than me. That was it.”
Small margins can make the difference, even in such an extended match, and perhaps Raonic will rue the ninth game of the second. With Murray serving at 30-all, Raonic erred on a routine backhand.
But worse than that for the 13th seed was double faulting at 5-6, 30-15. Another miscue, this time a volley error, leveled the affair on a cold, rainy day in Melbourne that necessitated the use of the roof earlier Friday.
Both men sailed through their service games early in the third, and Raonic’s triumph in the tiebreak meant he didn’t suffer for blowing 30-0 leads on the Murray serve at 4-4 and 5-5.
Murray’s fine record in fifth sets suggested that Raonic, if he was to prevail, would need to complete the upset in four.
But Murray broke at love for 4-3. In the ensuing game, yet another backhand would cost Raonic. Holding a break point and with Murray stranded at the net, Raonic’s shot went straight to Murray, who put away a forehand volley. He celebrated with what some called the “lawnmower,” down on one knee and incessantly fist pumping.
Murray saved two more break points at 5-4 though ‘saved’ was the right word. Murray didn’t give Raonic an opportunity.
As his leg injury intensified, frustration got the better of Raonic, which is rare. He pummeled a racket early in the fifth, falling behind by two breaks, and Murray improved his five-set record to 19-7.
“I guess that was sort of just the whole frustration of everything sort of getting out,” said Raonic. “I don’t think that’s like myself to do but sometimes it’s a little bit too much to keep it in.”
Djokovic probably applauded his pal’s efforts — he is also friends with Raonic. And he wouldn’t have minded the extended nature of the contest.
The way Djokovic crushed Roger Federer in the other semifinal Thursday, Murray will have to raise his game even more to end his drought in Melbourne.