By John Pye
MELBOURNE, Australia: For a full two sets and nine games, Roger Federer was the picture of poise, picking up half-volleys with vintage panache and placing winners past Andy Murray.
Then, in the bounce of a ball — or two bounces of the ball, depending on opinion — the 17-time major winner was transformed back into the vulnerable, 2013-edition Federer.
After breaking Murray to get a chance to serve for the match on Wednesday and a spot in the Australian Open semifinals for an 11th consecutive year, Federer dropped serve.
He recovered and jumped to a 5-2 lead in the tiebreaker, but then Murray rallied and won six of the last seven points to prolong the quarterfinal.
After wasting a handful of break-point chances in Murray’s next service game, which lasted almost 19 minutes, Federer finally wore down the Wimbledon champion 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-3 to set up a semifinal showdown with top-ranked Rafael Nadal.
“For me it was just a matter of staying calm and forgetting about it a little bit because, you know, the match was great until that point,” Federer said.
Murray made his resurgence after disputing a point in the ninth game of the third set, when he thought the ball had bounced twice before Federer hit it. Replays shown in Rod Laver Arena were inconclusive. Federer thought it was good, and left the call to the umpire.
“I’m proud of the way I fought,” said Murray, who had back surgery in September. “I’ve come a long way in four months.”
Nadal lost the first set and faced set points in the third, getting a reprieve when first-time quarterfinalist Grigor Dimitrov pushed a forehand just wide in a tiebreaker. Despite a painful blister on the palm of his left hand that hampered his serve, Nadal advanced 3-6, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (7), 6-2 against the 22-year-old Bulgarian.
“You lose a little bit of the coordination. Yeah, that’s a big deal,” Nadal said of his grip. “I served slower. I served bad [but] I was able to win a match against a very difficult opponent, so that has much more value than when everything is great.”
And that’s how the greatest of modern day champions reconcile it. On a day when two-time defending Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka lost 6-1, 5-7, 6-0 to No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska and followed other stars out of the tournament, Nadal and Federer won back-to-back matches on center court to set up their 33rd showdown.
Stan Wawrinka ended Novak Djokovic’s bid for a fourth consecutive Australian Open title with an upset win in the quarterfinals and will face 2010 Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych in the semifinals today.
That match will be preceded by the women’s semifinals. Li Na, the 2011 French Open champion and a two-time Australian Open finalist, is the only major winner left the draw. She’ll take on 19-year-old Canadian Eugenie Bouchard. Radwanska will face No. 20 Dominika Cibulkova, who convincingly beat No. 11 Simona Halep.
Nadal and Federer aren’t back in action until Friday. It gives Nadal time for his blisters to heal, and Federer time to recover from his tight win over Murray.
Federer dropped to No. 6 in the rankings as he struggled with injuries and came to terms with a new, bigger racket last year. He believes the win over Murray demonstrated that he is capable of winning a major again.
“I definitely think that’s what I used to do so well, the transition game from defense to offense,” he said. “I definitely sensed that. I am back.”