BRISBANE, Australia– Andy Murray is back where he kicked off his breakthrough 2012 season and his working partnership with Ivan Lendl, only one win away from successfully defending his title at the Brisbane International.
The reigning Brisbane, Olympic and U.S. Open champion advanced to the final when fifth-seeded Kei Nishikori retired with an injured left knee when trailing 6-4, 2-0 in their semifinal Saturday.
Still in his way is Grigor Dimitrov, the 21-year-old Bulgarian who is starting to live up to his reputation as a star-in-the-making by reaching his first ATP Tour final with a 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (5) win over 2006 Australian Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis.
The women’s final pitting Serena Williams against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova was set for Saturday night.
Both Murray and Dimitrov have an eye on the Australian Open, which starts Jan. 14, but both are conscious of the early-season interest in a showdown between a member of the fabulous four and a player in the up-and-coming group determined to break the domination that Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Murray and Rafael Nadal have had in the majors.
Murray knows what is at stake Sunday, recalling his first ATP Tour final against Federer – he lost at Bangkok in 2005 – as an opportunity to go for his shots with nothing to lose.
The top four men are constantly asked about players who are capable of being in the next generation of champions. The 25-year-old Murray is now including Dimitrov on his list.
”From my point of view, I hope that there isn’t people coming through because it means that I’ll be one of the ones that’s losing out on a spot,” he said, only half joking. ”There are loads of guys that are very, very tough players, all with different games.
”Grigor plays with a lot of variety. He can play a lot of shots. He’s one the few guys coming through that’s got a single-handed backhand as well, so he uses a lot more slice than the others.”
Putting them to the test, in the regular tournaments and the more physically demanding majors, is ”when you’ll find out about them,” he said.
Murray lost four Grand Slam finals, including consecutive championships at Melbourne Park in 2010 and ’11, but turned that around after he started last January to work with Lendl, who lost four major finals before going on to win eight.
A year on from their first practice sessions in Brisbane, Murray is a Grand Slam winner – ending that 76-year drought for British men.
He was down 4-1 against the fifth-seeded Nishikori before hitting his stride, winning the next seven games before the Japanese player called it quits two games after receiving medical treatment.
”I’m playing OK. A bit up and down,” Murray said. ”I’ve moved better every single match. Returning could have been better, and my groundstrokes, with more matches I’ll start it hit them cleaner.”
Dimitrov, the youngest player in the top 50, has quickly found the spotlight in 2013 with wins over second-seeded Milos Raonic, the big-serving Canadian, and seventh-seeded Jurgen Melzer en route to his first final.
He raced to a 3-0 lead in eight minutes to establish the only break of the first set and then was up a break in the second before No. 38-ranked Baghdatis hit back to take the match into a third set.
Baghdatis saved a breakpoint to force a tiebreaker and then was stunned when he received a time violation penalty – losing his first serve – when he was down a mini break. The ATP has modified its rules for 2013 to make it easier for chair umpires to caution players about slow play and Baghdatis had already been warned for taking too long between service points.
He fought back in the tiebreaker but Dimitrov came up with a stunning backhand which ultimately turned the match.
After reaching semifinals at Queen’s, Bastad and Gstaad in 2012, Dimitrov switched coaches for the off-season and has been working in Sweden at an academy run by Magnus Norman, Nicklas Kulti and Mikael Tillstrom. Together, they set a target of reaching the final in the first week of the season.
”We were actually pretty serious about it, and now that it happened, I was in the locker room and my coach was like, ‘Well, I told you so,”’ he said. ”Definitely every tournament I play of course I want to be in the final.”
Story first published: 5th January 2013