When Andy Murray and Milos Raonic step onto court at the Australian Open on Friday the prize on offer to them will be a dubious one. Of course, a place in the final of a Grand Slam is always something to be celebrated. Yet the performance of Novak Djokovic in brushing aside Roger Federer in the first semifinal in Melbourne signaled that whoever he goes up against in Sunday’s final could be on the receiving end of another tennis masterclass.
One can only hope that neither Murray nor Raonic spent too long on Thursday evening watching Djokovic’s majesty and contemplating what may lie in wait. That is especially true for Murray, who has lost three of the past five Australian Open finals to Djokovic. And focusing solely on the match in hand has already been difficult enough for Murray at this year’s event.
Going into the first Grand Slam of 2016, the world No. 2 made it clear that he was ready to pick up and go home at any moment, should his wife go into early labor with their first child. Then at the weekend, his father in law, Nigel Sears, collapsed courtside while on coaching duty with Ana Ivanovic and was rushed to a hospital. While Sears recovered sufficiently to be able to travel home to England, Murray admitted after his fourth-round win over Bernard Tomic that he had considered withdrawing from the event. Yet after beating David Ferrer in four sets in the quarterfinal Murray expressed confidence that he was now producing his best tennis.
“I think today was probably the best match I played, especially in the second and third set,” he said. “I started hitting the ball better from the back of the court. Start of the tournament was good. Obviously last few days have been tough and maybe hadn't played my best tennis and managed to get through.”
His opponent in the last four should have less of a problem focusing on the task at hand, as he seeks a place in a Grand Slam final for the first time. Raonic appeared set to become a real force at the top of the game when reaching the semifinals of Wimbledon in 2014, but an injury-affected season last year saw the Canadian take a step back and drop out of the world’s top 10.
The start of 2016 has seen him not just return to his 2014 level, but take his game to new heights. Always blessed with one of the biggest serves in tennis, the 25-year-old has showed in winning the title in Brisbane and particularly in beating French Open champion Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round at the Australian Open that he has become a much more dangerous all-round player. And he is now relishing being back in his second Grand Slam semifinal, and with the chance to improve on his straight sets defeat to Federer in his first.
“It's a very positive thing if you look at the big picture,” he said. Right now in this moment alone it's a great opportunity for me. I had a little bit of a disappointing semifinal two years ago now, and sort of just want to change that story around and give myself another go with more experience and where I feel like I'm a better player than I was two years ago.”
Prediction: This is a far tougher match to call than it would have been at the start of the year. Raonic has taken a major leap forward with his movement, return game and his net play over the close season and now under the tutelage of former world No. 1 Carlos Moya. He also, perhaps surprisingly, is level in the head-to-head series with Murray at three wins apiece. Whatever the result, this promises to be a hugely entertaining contest, with Raonic, playing extremely aggressively, going up against the best defender in the game not named Novak Djokovic. If Murray is at his best, and recent events have the effect of galvanizing him, he should prevail over the course of five sets. But the emotional upheaval of the past few days may just take its toll and allow Raonic to provide further evidence that, whether on Sunday or further down the line, he could very well be the next man to break through the established order and win a first Grand Slam title.
Predicted score: Raonic in five sets
Match time: Friday, 3:30 a.m. EST
TV channel: ESPN
Live stream: Watch ESPN