- Ravi Ubha, Tennis
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Don't confuse respect with fondness.
Following Federer's all-too-easy semifinal win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the Australian Open, the 15-time Grand Slam champion dished out a slew of verbal volleys. The kind of volleys he'd avoid if Rafael Nadal, for instance, was waiting Sunday evening in Melbourne rather than Murray.
Two years after Federer trashed Murray's essentially counterpunching style, there's still no love lost. Asked if Murray improved since their clash at the 2008 U.S. Open final, Federer, in front of about a dozen British reporters, said not really.
"He's still as good," Federer told reporters. "Let's put it that way."
He then upped the ante on the 22-year-old, again on the verge of ending Britain's protracted wait for a men's Grand Slam champion. Seventy-four years, not 150,000, as Federer joked courtside Friday.
"Now that he didn't win the first one, I think it doesn't help for the second one around," he said. "Plus he's playing, you know, me. I don't feel the pressure's really on me having to do it again, because I did it before. I think he really needs it more than I do."
Federer, yes, has done it all.
He completed his Grand Slam collection at the French Open in June, overtook Pete Sampras' haul of majors a few weeks later at Wimbledon and reclaimed the year-end No. 1 spot from Nadal; no easy feat, injury or no injury to the Spaniard. Of course, as he also pointed out, Federer doesn't want to depart Australia's second-biggest city without a fourth title, given that he's been here three weeks and made the long journey with twins. Getting to the upper teens in majors would suit him nicely.
Federer, remarkably, reached 18 of the past 19 Grand Slam finals, with Nadal and baseline thumper Juan Martin del Potro inflicting the only defeats.
"It's phenomenal," said Cedric Pioline, twice a loser to Sampras in Grand Slam finals. "He's in another world. He has the chance to make 16 now, and that's what counts for him. He has less pressure."
The days of Federer coasting to majors are long gone, and a pair of Russians, Igor Andreev and Nikolay Davydenko, extended the 28-year-old to four sets in the first round and quarterfinals, respectively.
He tuned up for the finale, however, with a demolition job of the unfortunate Tsonga in 90 minutes. Presumably, the early finish allowed Tsonga to grab dinner at a nice restaurant.
"I didn't think Tsonga played his best," Murray retorted Saturday in his prematch news conference. "He looked physically a little tired."
Federer downed the Scot in his own backyard, sort of, at London's year-end championships in November. The final two sets were a cakewalk, 6-3, 6-1. Months earlier in the baking heat of Cincinnati, Murray fell 6-2, 7-6 (8). Murray struggled on serve both times, not exceeding a percentage of 51.
"Without taking anything away from him, a few times he played me I wasn't at my very, very best," Federer said. "We had some close matches on many occasions where I thought I was in control and I ended up giving the match away. I think the head-to-head could be quite different. Best-of-five is anyway very different."
The thought of going the distance won't trouble Murray. He's one of the fittest pros on tour, long departed from the days when his endurance was questioned. Even if he didn't fully get along with former coach Brad Gilbert, the chirpy ESPN analyst drummed home the importance of fitness.
Murray dropped only one set this fortnight and perhaps played the best match of his career in the quarterfinals versus Nadal. Bypassing his usual defensive style, Murray went forward, pummeled the forehand, his weaker wing, and served huge.
Murray upstaged Federer, too, by unleashing the shots of the tournament, scampering to smack a key forehand past up-and-coming Marin Cilic off a lob and sending a forehand around the netpost down from an angled Cilic return.
He's not thinking of the Flushing Meadows final.
"I just feel physically more mature, mentally more mature," Murray said. "I just have a lot more experience in these sorts of situations now. If I play my best, I think I got a good chance against anyone."
How Murray copes with the occasion figures to be key. Admittedly hampered by nerves early in his semifinal against Cilic, the Croat claimed the opening set. If Cilic -- with a game resembling del Potro's -- hadn't contested three five-setters the previous eight days, who knows what the outcome would have been?
A shaky Murray at the start of the final could be enough for Federer to win the first set, then coast.
"You don't want to get a set down to Roger," said former doubles standout John Fitzgerald, an analyst for host broadcaster Channel 7. "But it may have been that Andy felt he had a lot more to lose in the semis because he was the favorite. Maybe in the final he feels he has a lot less to lose. Sometimes that affects your mindset. You play aggressively and you go out and try to grab it rather than sit back and be nervous."
Prediction: Federer in four.
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
11hMichael C. Wright