There is an air of comfy familiarity about all of this: we are well into the second week of a major championship, and Andy and Roger are at it again. There is a place in the semifinals of the Australian Open up for grabs and both men have that look in their eye. We have been here many times before.
Wednesday’s meeting is the 21st time of asking for these two and there are no secrets between them. Murray holds an 11-9 record over the old GOAT (wait! That’s not an insult: it means Greatest Of All Time) but Federer has beaten the Muzz in three grand slam finals. Then again, Muzza has beaten Federer in an Olympic final and did for him here last year in the semifinals. Oh, yes, this is warming up nicely.
For both men, this year is a new beginning. For the first time in months, Federer feels fit and free of the back problems that hampered his 2013 season. Blimey, that was a lousy 12 months for the Swiss – not a grand slam final reached, a second round dismissal at Wimbledon suffered and one measly title collected in Halle. GOATs expect more of themselves than that.
But this month, with the season just a few weeks old, Fed is looking happy. With Stefan Edberg at his side (and Stefan is looking in mighty fine nick for a bloke who has been away from professional sport for 18 years) and with a new aggressive outlook, he looked like the Swiss Master of old as he demolished Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Monday night. For the first time in 18 months, there were oohs and ahhs and gasps of amazement from the crowd as Fed put on a master class. Boy, did he look good.
Now, Federer has never been short of confidence, but as he slid down the rankings last year (by August he was down to No.7 in the world, his lowest placing since 2002), he did sound a bit glum. Forced to admit that he was struggling, he complained that he was not able to practice and train as he would like – and no matter how good you are, if you can’t practice properly, you cannot compete with the likes of Rafa, Novak and the Muzz.
Now, though, that old bounce is back in his step and the air of confident authority has returned to his pronouncements. When someone dared to mention that the match-up with Murray would be a real test for him, Fed put his interrogator firmly – if politely – in his place.
“I don't need Murray to have a further test,” Federer said calmly. “The draw is a very testing draw. I know it's tough. It's not easy for anybody right now at this stage of the tournament.”
He had suggested that perhaps both he and Murray were starting the year with a mixture of enthusiasm and doubts. Both needed to see how their back injuries had healed – Murray had surgery last October and did not play again until the very end of December – and both were keen to see, if indeed they truly were fully fit, what state their game was in now. But when pushed again about those doubts, Fed changed his tune. He had just walloped Jo-Willy; who was going to have doubts after that?
“For me personally, I've overcome it,” the GOAT said. “I don't have doubts anymore. I know I'm going definitely in the right direction. I've had a great off‑season. I had a strong end to the year. I couldn't have worked harder in the off‑season. Then Brisbane was good. I played singles and doubles. Here, this is the type of win I needed. Clearly if I lose 0‑0 in the next round I'll have doubts again, but I'm going to try to not make that happen.”
Trying to make it happen will be Scotland’s finest. Murray came into the Open with only a handful of matches under his belt and, consequently, he was managing his expectations. His draw has been easier than he could have expected – he has only faced one top-30 player in Feliciano Lopez and he took him down in straight sets – and with every round, he has felt a little stronger and played a little better.
Against the unheralded Stephane Robert on Monday, he was moving well, leaning into his ground strokes with extra weight and dominating the Frenchman in every rally. Or he was until he let his mind wander as served for the match and ended up dropping the set and smashing his racquet. Once into the fourth set, it was business as usual. It may not have been the flamboyant, free-flowing performance that Federer showed to the crowds, but it got the job done. And against Federer, he knows what he needs to do.
“I've played him, I don't know, around 20 times, I think,” Murray said. “So all of those matches, it's all kind of experience. You know how you need to play against him, tactically things that work and things that don't work.
“Obviously last year’s semifinal is pretty relevant because it's on the same court and it will be under the same conditions. But in an individual sport, any day is a new day. Anything can happen. If you play 10 per cent below your best, you can be off the court quickly. So whether my tactics are great or not, I need to play a great match to win.
“I can't honestly say my expectations are as high as if I'd been playing for the last four months. It's been a good effort so far to get to the quarterfinals of a slam this soon after back surgery. So I'm happy with that. But, you know, I'm not far away from winning the event. Anyone's that's in the quarters is close. I just look forward to that match and hopefully play a good one.”
Purely on the evidence of the past four rounds, Murray will go into Wednesday night’s match as the underdog regardless of his superior ranking (No.4 in the world to Federer’s No.6). But when one grand slam champion meets another in a match that matters, the form book does not count for much. If both men are feeling good and if those doubts really have been dispelled, we ought to be in for a cracker.