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Friday, January 29, 2010
Updated: January 30, 4:20 AM ET
With more motivation, Murray may have the ad


Quick, somebody get the blindfold and the cigarette for Andy Murray.

That's the feeling many people had after they watched Roger Federer disarm the potent game of big, strong, athletic Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Australian Open semifinals, to set up a championship match with Murray.

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But let's remember one thing before we hand Federer the title: Murray is a young player on the upswing; Federer is a veteran layering more frosting on a career that, although not complete, is already fully baked. And that just might be the difference in the final.

High achievers in the late stages of their careers have one thing in common: While they're capable of playing their best tennis on any given day, or any string of given days, they're also prone to experiencing puzzling letdowns -- days when the engine just won't hit an adequate RPM to beat a certain guy or take a title.

Federer's recent history with the guy who has been gnawing at his ankles in recent months was a case in point. Nikolay Davydenko has trouble bringing his A-game (or maybe it's his A-brain) to really big matches. He surprised Federer, who previously owned him, in their past two meetings before the Australian Open, one at the end of 2009 and one earlier this year in Doha.

Davydenko also jumped out to a big lead over Federer in their quarterfinal meeting, but Federer's alarm bells went off in the nick of time. Which happened to be the same time Davydenko seemed to realize that -- despite those two recent wins over Federer -- what he was on the verge of accomplishing wasn't supposed to happen to a guy like him. So it didn't.

The world No. 1 and 15-time Grand Slam winner can't afford to dilly-dally like that against Murray, unless the rising Scottish star gets a little gun-shy in the final. That's unlikely to happen, given the way Murray has progressed through the draw. Statistically, it's as close to a dead heat as you can get.

Murray has lost just one set during the tournament (and that was in the semifinals) and, just as significantly, he has played just two tiebreakers. Murray's ace count is 56, and he has won 33 return games. Federer has 46 aces -- not bad for a guy even more prone than Murray to use his serve as a set-up -- and he has won 35 return games.

Federer's first-serve percentage dipped below the 60 percent mark just once (59 percent, in the quarters). Murray has broken that plateau in just two matches, so you could give Federer a slight edge there. But neither of these guys is serve-dependent, so that edge is negligible.

Murray has a 6-4 head-to-head advantage against Federer, but as Davydenko showed the other day, beating Federer on a Grand Slam stage is a whole other matter. And Federer won his only Grand Slam clash with Murray in straight sets at the U.S. Open in 2008.

The one big intangible that Murray has going for him is that career momentum advantage, fueled partly by the theme that he doesn't have what it takes to endure the two-week grind of a Grand Slam event. Roger needs to be careful, though, because he can't afford to have a senior moment.