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Andy Murray’s hold over Roger Federer makes him favourite for the Australian Open

Andy Murray

Pulling the strings: Murray's win in Doha yesterday was his fourth in a row against Federer, who was made to resemble a shadow of his former self

Roger Federer is not often lost for shots, lost for ideas or lost for words. However, at the end of another dispiriting hour and 33 minutes at the hands of Andy Murray yesterday, that is exactly how it was. As of this moment, no one will enter the Australian Open on Monday week in a more settled mood, as match-tight and with a keener sense of his own wellbeing than Britain's best.

Murray defeated Federer 6-7, 6-2, 6-2 in the semi-final of the Qatar ExxonMobil Open in Doha, the fourth time in succession that he has done so (one of those was an exhibition match in Abu Dhabi a week ago)and in each of those matches victory has been achieved having lost the first set. We are in uncharted waters as far as either player, or men's tennis since Federer began his period of domination and splendour six years ago, is concerned.

Since the US Open final last September, in which the Swiss had so much to prove and Murray had not quite acquired sufficient nous to handle what was a new occasion, the 21-year-old has taken a sadistic delight in giving Federer a head start and then unravelling his game as one would pulling at a single thread of an old cardigan. Rafael Nadal muscles Federer aside, Murray exhausts and exasperates him.

Of course, the outcome might have been different had Federer taken one of three break points at 1-1 in the second set, but Murray served his way out of that pickle with a sublime belief in his shot-making talents. From that moment on, the match was going to end with only one winner and at its close, it looked as if this was the British No1 playing a shadow of the man who, until August, had spent 237 consecutive weeks as the best player on the planet.

In the final today, Murray meets Andy Roddick, of the United States, another player from the top ten over whom he has a significant winning record. Roddick's 7-6, 3-6, 6-3 win against Gaël Monfils, of France, was highly creditable, although it was hard to imagine that anything he possesses ought to trouble the Scot unduly. This is Murray's third consecutive Doha final - he is the defending champion - and will be his last match before beginning his campaign at Melbourne Park, one for which he has never been more adequately prepared, either physically or mentally.

Yes, there was a bit of a twinge in his back at the start of the third set that required a three-minute rubdown, but, although he then missed four consecutive first serves and tossed in his first double fault in two matches, Murray stood firm and it was the 13-times grand-slam tournament champion who wobbled. Not since the French Open final last year, when Nadal allowed him a mere four games, had Federer looked so completely bewildered.

At the end of a match in which he committed 37 unforced errors, it was all he could do to acknowledge Murray, he did not shake hands with the umpire and just about remembered to raise a hand to a loyal following that has to be as concerned about him as Federer should be about himself. It would seem that his one hope of winning grand slam No14 in total, and No4 at the Rod Laver Arena, is to be drawn in the opposite half to Murray and hope that, if they meet in the final, the Scot is as disconcerted by the occasion as he was at Flushing Meadows four months ago. And that is looking ever more improbable.

The first week of the year has also been a notable one for Anne Keothavong, the British No1. Her run at the ASB Classic in Auckland was ended in the semi-finals by Elena Vesnina, from Russia, 6-7, 6-1, 7-5, but Keothavong heads to Hobart in Tasmania to complete her Australian Open preparation in high spirits. “I'm not going to beat myself up about the result,” she said. “There were a lot of nerves and I got quite emotional because I wanted it badly. There are lots of things I could've done better, but what's done is done now and I need to regroup and get ready for Hobart, which starts on Sunday.”


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