THE guard is changing, but the handover will be long and dignified. Andy Murray's victory last night was his first over Roger Federer in a major championship, and the match was akin to negotiations about new terms. Throughout, Murray had the running of this exquisite match, tactically, statistically and athletically, but Federer's champion qualities kept asserting themselves, and Murray will double check in Saturday's morning newspapers to be sure that he won.
Federer is a one-man dynasty, and will not be easily usurped. But do not forget that Rafael Nadal will be back in the reckoning soon, too.
For fans, the eclipse of Federer is sad, but with a gilt edge. Andre Agassi, visiting Melbourne for the first time since retirement, said on Friday that this looked to him to be a time of unprecedented riches. ''When I see those top three guys, I see what history will say is the golden age of tennis,'' Agassi said. ''You're talking about arguably the three best guys.'' If Murray in his new completeness can prevail over Novak Djokovic in Sunday's final, you can start to sketch in a fourth.
Agassi, incidentally, all but predicted this: Murray in four. Murray served for the match in fourth set, but in that perhaps epochal moment, he tensed, Federer loosened, a little friction flared between the pair, and before anyone could believe it, they were in a fifth set. Here was Agassi on Federer: ''I'm sort of out of the business of predicting Federer. For half his career he impressed me and surprised me. Now he no longer surprises me; he just continues to impress me.''
Agassi's reasoning in predicting a triumph for Murray was that Federer, six years older than Murray and coming off a rugged five-setter against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, would feel the pinch first. It proved true eventually, but it was not that simple.
To prevail, Murray had to play smart, engaging Federer in long rallies and keeping the ball as much as he could away from Federer's trusty forehand. He also had to play perhaps the most sublime service match of his career, remaining unbroken until deep into the fourth set, when the match was two-and-three-quarter hours old. And he had to regather himself after allowing Federer to swarm all over him when he served for the match in the fourth set.
The standard of tennis and the tactical intrigue had Rod Laver arena agog all night, and Laver himself, too. Here was the apotheosis of Agassi's observation earlier in the day about modern tennis, so barely recognisable to him. ''I don't recognise it from a standpoint of strategy, because I counted on getting somebody behind in a point and then slowly smothering them,'' he said. ''But nobody's behind in a point (now). You never know when they're behind in a point.''
Federer, though outplayed, was never quite beaten. He seized on a rare moment when Murray's nerve twanged, half-smashing at an out ball in the second set tie-breaker, to turn it into a winner and so level match. He was unblinking again the fourth-set tie-breaker, when a slip would have cost him the match summarily. He drew on champion qualities, indefinable and sometimes underestimated in a player who sometimes makes the game look casually simple.
Federer didn't run out of leg or puff, but he did run into new territory; never before in his exceptional career had he played back-to-back five-set matches. Pre-match, he said he enjoyed five-set matches because they tended to stand out in the memory and the record books from the endless sequence of two- and three-set wins.
Ultimately, this proved memorable, but not as Federer would have written it. Murray had set the terms for this match in the first, dominating on serve and manouvering the ball away from Federer's strengths. In the fifth, he did it again. Further, he did what Federer has done to so many others, breaking his opponent's serve early and dictating from there. Victory arrived for Murray in half an hour, the quickest set in this four-hour match.
As the players exited, there was nothing to pick between the crowd's acknowledgement of them. The king is not dead, but his court is suddenly uncomfortably crowded with pretenders. It is going to be a fascinating year.