The scoreboard was against him, his opponent playing at a substantially higher level. But Andy Murray continued to battle for more than three hours at Rod Laver Arena on Wednesday night before falling to Roger Federer 6-3 6-4 6-7(6) 6-3 in the Australian Open quarterfinals.
The Australian Open was only Murray’s second tournament back after undergoing back surgery, and coming into the first major of the year, he stated that he didn't think he had enough matches under his belt to be able to win his third grand slam title.
Perhaps he did not, and his quality was not what it was when he bested Federer in the semifinals in Melbourne in 2013 or won Wimbledon last summer.
But his heart was just as big. He never gave in, not for a millisecond
“I was proud of the way I fought,” the Scot said after the match.
The resurgent Federer flew about the court, kept attacking, and showed more power on his groundstrokes and competence around the net than he did in 2013.
Federer served for the match at 5-4 in the third set, but Murray pumped himself up enough to grab the break. The Swiss then held two match points in the tiebreaker, but Murray pushed right back again, forcing the match into a fourth set.
“I hung in well,” Murray said. “I pushed through it. You know, almost got myself back in the match.”
The 26-year-old’s back looked a little stiff in the fourth set, but he managed to persevere through one long rally after another even though he had lost some foot speed. But Federer never lost confidence and kept pressing Murray on his service games. He finally broke him to 5-3, and served out the match, snapping Murray’s four-year run with an Australian Open semifinal finish or better.
That Murray was in with a chance of another final four finish in Melbourne showed just how much he’d progressed in his recovery.
“I've come a long way in four months,” Murray said.
“Obviously right now I'm very disappointed. There's a few things I would have liked to have done differently. There's maybe some things I would have done a bit differently if I was ever to have surgery again, possibly. But it's the first time I ever went through something like that.
“I thought I did a good job getting myself in good shape to be competitive at this level. Wasn't too far away in the end.”
Murray is a super-competitive person, and while he put the loss in perspective, his mind was churning as to how he could have won the match. Murray spent the northern hemisphere autumn and early winter rehabbing as hard as he could and while he is a realist, if he gets himself into a position where he can sniff a win, he still wants to inhale it.
That is how he felt against Federer in front of a raucous crowd at Rod Laver Arena.
“It's frustrating because, when you start the process, you're getting ready, it's basically been four months when you're lying on your back not being able to move or walk,” he said.
“You put in a lot of hard work for this long period. Then, as much as you haven't played enough matches and stuff, a lot of work and time goes into getting yourself ready. You want to give yourself the best chance to win. A lot of work went into this slam compared with other ones where you have a few weeks to prepare. This time I had a long time to prepare, maybe just not enough matches.”
Even though there was frustration etched on his face, Murray knows that it’s extremely rare for a player to come back to the tour and immediately have success at a major. Rafael Nadal came back after seven months off last season and won his first major back at Roland Garros, but that was after more than three months of hardcore play at tournaments. Murray only had a week of tournament play to warm up for this year’s Australian Open.
In the circumstances, reaching the quarterfinals could be seen as an accomplishment.
“I don't know how many players have come back from surgery and won the first grand slam back in their second tournament,” Murray said.
“I just need to use this as a stepping-stone to getting better and be happy that I've got through five matches. The last two were particularly tough. And, yeah, I'm playing at a decent level fairly quickly again. Hopefully I'll be back playing my best tennis soon.”