After an injury-ravaged 2014, Andy Murray is back to his combative, feisty, scampering best, progressing through to his fourth Australian Open final at the expense of Tomas Berdych.
In a night of niggle and see-sawing fortunes, it was the Scot who had the legs and the ticker, coming from behind to win 6-7 (6-8) 6-0 6-3 7-5.
In the epoch of the Big Four of the men’s game, Berdych has been perched reliably but reluctantly on the next rung down. Still, if you were teaching someone how to play tennis, he would represent a good study.
No mortal could ever emulate Federer and no-one within their right mind would subject themselves to a Nadal-like game. But the Czech’s serve and groundstrokes are straight from the textbook – smooth, effortless and, for those lower on the tennis totem pole, hard to counter.
That said, you wouldn’t necessarily want him playing for your life. Despite being one of only two players to defeat the Big Four in grand slam events, there is a glassy fragility to his game.
In cyberspace and in the locker room, he cuts a figure of the utmost affability. But on court, the jaw tightens noticeably at crunch moments. In last year’s semi-final against Stan Wawrinka, he pretty much double-faulted himself out of the tournament.
His recent numbers were excellent however. Heading into his match with Murray, Berdych boasted a 6-4 record against the Scot, was yet to drop a set in this tournament and had finally managed to slay Nadal, having been his bunny for the best part of a decade.
He began like a jet, barely dropping a point in his opening three service games. In the sixth game, which was delayed for a good minute due to the late arrival of singer Kenny Rogers, Murray stretched for a low ball, somehow hit a winner but seemed to twinge a calf muscle.
Two games later, Berdych pounced on Murray’s one glaring weakness – a pedestrian second serve – to break and serve for the set. The Scot – grumpy, spoiling for a scrap and ever so proppy – thwarted him however. In the tightest of tiebreaks, Berdych saved a set point but prevailed when Murray netted a dolly of a forehand.
There was obvious animosity between the pair, doubtlessly owing to the presence of Berdych’s new coach, a former key member of the Murray camp.
There were curses, stink-eyes and stare-downs, everything but a Scottish kiss. It wasn’t exactly new territory for Murray but a rarity for the ice-cool Czech. A natural born scrapper, it seemed to wake Murray from his torpor. He barely lost a point in the second set, steamrolling his way to a 6-0 win.
On serve in the sixth game of the third, Berdych was 40-0 up one minute and double faulting, second guessing and looking over his shoulder the next. It was a snapshot of a career. Revelling in the niggle from the pro-Berdych crowd, Murray broke with a sadistic forehand winner, later closing out the set with an ace and a glare.
Could the sport’s ‘thereabouts’ man show some fight? He held successive break points at 3-2 but stuttered and fluffed his lines. At 5-5, he played a tentative service game, with three unforced errors and a double fault. His body language was shot. The Scot served it out to love and marched into the final.
Murray, as has been the case all fortnight, played ruthless, bold tennis.
These days, his scrambling, defensive, highly physical game is interspersed with some light and canny touches. On Thursday he won the points that mattered, played the smarter game and had the greater will.
His opponent on Sunday, suffice to say, will offer stiffer resistance.