Obviously Murray has come back from a major operation and was always going to find it difficult in the latter stages of his first Grand Slam. But Federer’s incredible resurgence is a greater factor than Murray’s rustiness.
Federer has made an unbelievable improvement since the end of last year. He has clearly worked very hard on his fitness over the winter, and he would not have made the call to Stefan Edberg unless he was feeling physically strong – he knows full well that Stefan would demand he was in excellent shape before agreeing to work with him.
Of course everyone has been raving about Federer’s attacking play, about his shot-making and brilliant net-play. And while that has a hint of Edberg about it, Federer has always been the best in those positions.
What has really made the difference is his new-found defensive dominance. Along with superb defensive net coverage, he is sticking in the long baseline rallies, and keeping his concentration under serious pressure. That is down to fitness – while he may have lost a shade of pace, he appears to have greater stamina than last year, and is showing Djokovic-like flexibility in reaching seemingly unreachable shots.
Can Federer beat Nadal? Absolutely. This is the best he has played in a few years, and it is very much back to the Big Four again. And, now he has the ability to go toe-to-toe physically with the likes of Murray, Federer will be brimming with confidence.
Indeed, that 18th Grand Slam is not looking so unlikely after all.
Now that Federer is able to play his natural net game while maintaining good defensive coverage, we could see a change in the way the big guns play. Over the coming months Federer should move back up the rankings and we will start to see him competing more regularly at the latter stages of tournaments.
As a result, we can expect Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray to start coming to the net with greater frequency – a defensively solid Federer means a baseline slug-fest is no longer going to work, so the younger men will have to use their athleticism to beat the Master.
Murray will have known that during this match. But it was eventually too much for Murray – the back is a red herring, his real problem was a lack of match practice, and he was always likely to come unstuck once he faced a serious test.
Murray will see this Australian Open as a success of sorts – obviously he will be disappointed not to have at least reached the semis of a tournament he usually excels at, but realistically it came a shade too soon for someone making his comeback from a major operation.
The thing, is Murray actually played very well against Federer, who was supreme. The third set comeback was an excellent triumph of resolve and, while there are occasional tweaks on his back, it does seem that the operation has worked and that, long-term, Murray will be a better player as a result.
Tennis is a sport where you are only at your peak when you have played lots of high-quality matches. Murray needed a handful of ATP tournaments before the Aussie Open; he will get that practice ahead of the French.
Murray is unlikely to skip Roland Garros like he did last year as he will want to give 100% - the longer he lasts in a clay-court Grand Slam, the better prepared he will be for the switch to grass courts ahead of Wimbledon.
Will he feel he can win RG? Probably not. But he will give it his best shot.