MELBOURNE, Australia -- Somewhere between the greatest of all time and all washed up stood the newest version of Roger Federer on Wednesday night. Perhaps short of vintage Fed but light years, he admitted, from where he was four months ago, a healthy, newly confident and yes, maybe even vindicated, Federer advanced to his 11th straight Australian Open semifinal with a relatively easy victory over Andy Murray.
In a comeback of sorts for both players: Murray had back surgery four months ago following a great 2013, and Federer has back problems and is coming off a career decline. So in some respects, this one qualified as a victory for both players.
But though Murray proved his body could hold up to the highest level of tennis for 3½ hours, Federer, with his 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-3 victory, moves on to play the waiting Rafael Nadal while generating still more fuel to the never-ending and always entertaining debate about his future.
A new racket with a bigger face. A new coach with a serve-and-volley philosophy. A faster playing surface at the Australian Open. It always has to be something, it seems, with Federer. And indeed, the more powerful weapon in his right hand and new voice in his head in Stefan Edberg have combined these past two weeks to produce a player who certainly looks more aggressive and better equipped to challenge for more Grand Slam titles.
But, as the 32-year-old pointed out with a smile, "The racket's not going to do the running for you," he said. "What I used to do so well, the transition game from defense to offense, I definitely sensed that today, I am back physically. I'm explosive out there. I can get to balls. I'm not afraid to go for balls.
"Last year at times [I] couldn't do it, but [what's] important is that I can do it now."
Asked how Federer's play compared to five years ago when their rivalry began, Murray said it was difficult to answer, that the margins are "very, very small" at this level.
They did not appear, however, so small early Wednesday night, as Federer jumped to a 2-0 lead in sets and was serving for the match at 5-4 in the third. It looked like it would be quick work for Federer until Murray created his first break opportunity in 15 service games and capitalized on his second break try to knot the set at 5-all.
Federer had another opportunity in the tiebreaker with two set points at 6-4, but a newly fired-up Murray, who was more outplayed than playing badly at that point, forced Federer into consecutive forehand errors, then capitalized on his first set-point opportunity when Federer pushed another forehand long.
If there was a momentum change, it lingered two games into the fourth set when Federer jumped to a love-40 lead on Murray's serve but failed to capitalize on six break-point chances in an 18-minute, 56-second, 27-point game.
Federer admitted he became passive and more reluctant to come to the net from the late stages of the third set and into the fourth. But sensing, he said, that Murray was wearing down physically, he seized the chance to break in the eighth game for a 5-3 lead, then served out the match with an ace.
Murray, as is his way, was cautiously optimistic afterward.