Breakable ... Roger Federer's signature unreturnable serve was broken five times by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and will be tested by Andy Murray's aggressive returns. Photo: Wayne Taylor
Andy Murray understandably is tired of the question about what has changed since he broke through for his first major championship victory last year, but Roger Federer identifies one difference, and it might be crucial to their Australian Open semi-final meeting on Friday night.
''I've always enjoyed my match-ups with him, because they get very tactical,'' Federer said. ''They were never straightforward. He would make you doubt, and play very different to the rest of the guys. I kind of always enjoyed that, when it's not just every point the same. We used to mix it up against each other.
''Now it's changed, because he's playing more offensive. The rallies aren't as long and gruelling as they used to be.''
This change is more than skin deep. The tennis wise and wizened say that as courts have slowed, players have had to search for new ways around and past each other. Murray's has been to concentrate on return of serve, a la Andre Agassi, seeking to shorten some points and denying Federer the initiative. ''I think it's especially on the return that you see the biggest significant change in his game overall, if you look back now,'' Federer said.
France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga concentrated on his returns in Wednesday night's quarter -final against Federer, breaking five times a serve that previously had been invulnerable in the tournament, and taking Federer to five sets.
But Tsonga is not Murray, not yet. Possibly, the change we are witnessing is not just tactical, but of the guard. Federer is 31, Murray 25, so logic says that there must be a succession in the forseeable future. But who would be prepared to pronounce this king dead?
Murray leads Federer 10-9 head-to-head, Federer shaded Murray 3-2 last year. In the middle of the year, they met twice in a month on the same court, in the Wimbledon final and the Olympic final. Federer took home the sport's most coveted trophy, again, while Murray took home the gold medal.
Herein lies another moral: they have met only three times in major championships, all in finals, and Federer has won them all. He is at the age and stage when majors matter, but not much else.
Federer looked sublimely untroubled in this tournament until he ran into Tsonga. ''Jo was really pressing forward, playing aggressive, pushing me to come up with the plays and get one more extra ball back,'' he said. This accentuated two less dwelled-upon aspects of Federer's game: his court coverage, which is still exceptional, and his defence. As much as slower courts and fitter players demand new tactics, he said, so they emphasise the need to be able to scramble. Federer can do that, too.
Murray's severest opponent in this tournament has been himself. He has not dropped a set, but nor had Maria Sharapova until losing to Li Na. In fact, he has ghosted through the tournament, rarely appearing at night or on Rod Laver Arena. Murray allowed himself no airs, marked himself down for less-than-crisp ball striking in a couple of matches, but felt that in his quarter-final thrashing of Frenchman Jeremy Chardy, he did most things right.
''You have to trust yourself that when you are tested, you're going to play better tennis,'' he said. ''You never know for sure. In the build-up to the tournament, I played very well. I haven't lost a set here yet. Maybe I'm expecting to play too well, or whatever.''
Statistically, they are finely matched. Viscerally, there is an aspect in which Federer still might shade Murray after all these years. It was there for all to see at the end of his mighty clash with Tsonga. Simply, it is that Federer rises as the stakes rise, and so can never be counted out. In terms of raw points, Federer won the last set against Tsonga by 12, the widest margin between the pair in the match. ''He didn't miss a lot in the fifth set,'' said Tsonga, ruefully simple. It is the lament of a generation.