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Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Federer set for Murray challenge

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was as surprised as anyone.

"He took the ball very early today, and he was always taking my time," the Frenchman said of his straight-sets, fourth-round loss to Roger Federer. "I don't know how to say that. Because he took so ball so early, I don't have time to play my game.

"And that's it."

Yes, it certainly was.

Roger Federer
Last season, Roger Federer was 0-7 against the other members of the Big Four.
Federer, who at 32 has been unable to handle the game's best in recent years, was dominant in a vintage performance against Tsonga, still a formidable player himself who scorched Federer when they met at last year's French Open.

"I mean, been in the quarters before," Federer said, smiling in his postmatch news conference. "This was the kind of match I was hoping to play maybe against Jo in Paris in the quarters. I struggled all the way through the entire match.

"This is nice being back in the quarters, because I haven't been in one for two now, Wimbledon and the US Open. So we'll see where it goes now."

Federer's 41st Grand Slam singles quarterfinal -- which ties the epic Open era mark of Jimmy Connors -- brings the No. 6-seeded player to another "special" meeting with No. 4 Andy Murray, who defeated journeyman Stephane Robert in four sets.

"Yeah," said Murray, "I think there's always going to be because of everything that he's achieved in the game. There's very few guys I'll play in my career that win as much as that, if any."

That said, Murray holds an 11-9 head-to-head edge over Federer. Murray lost to him in the 2010 final in Melbourne but returned the favor a year ago, winning a four-hour semifinal match in five sets. In fact, since that Australian title four years ago, Federer has gone down Down Under to his biggest (younger) rivals: Novak Djokovic in 2011, Rafael Nadal in 2012 and Murray last year.

Last year, it must be noted, Federer was 0-for-7 against those guys.

Still, there are changes in chemistry that suggest he just might have the upper hand in this match. Federer is healthier than he's been in a while and seems to have a new energy to go along with his new, larger Wilson racket and new coach Stefan Edberg. Against Tsonga, he served-and-volleyed and crashed the net 41 times (winning 34 points), more than anyone in his half of the draw in fourth-round matches.

"You talk about it," Federer said of his prematch discussions with Edberg. "The question is can you then do it? I was hoping I could play a little bit aggressive. So I think it worked out better than I thought it would."

Murray, on the other hand, is a little less than he usually is at this stage of the Australian Open. After taking 3½ months off following back surgery, the man who has appeared in three of the past four finals here has been, understandably, a tad rusty.

"I said at the start of the tournament, I can't honestly say my expectations are as high as if I'd been playing," Murray said. "It's been a good effort so far to get to the quarterfinals of a Slam this soon after back surgery. So I'm happy with that. But I'm not far away from, you know, winning the event."

This one should be fun, particularly after the way last year's match unfolded. At one point in the fourth set, after getting passed by a sizzling forehand, the guy who wins all the sportsmanship awards fired an F-bomb at Murray. There were no hard feelings, but the two do create a certain tension on the court. In a nice way.

There's more pressure on Federer here, because his window is narrowing. He's trying to become the first 32-year-old to win this tournament since Andre Agassi in 2003. Certainly, Federer's serve is as solid as ever; through eight matches this year, he has been broken only five times.

"I don't have doubts anymore," Federer said. "I know I'm going definitely in the right direction. I've had a great offseason. I had a strong end to the year. I couldn't have worked harder in the offseason."

No. 1 Rafael Nadal versus No 22 Grigor Dimitrov

They first met five years ago in Rotterdam -- and the 17-year-old from Bulgaria ranked No. 478 took a set off the four-time French Open champion.

"I remember playing Roger Federer in Miami in 2004, and I was only enjoying the moments," Rafa said afterward. "I felt no pressure. He will certainly be a great player and for sure reach the top 10."

Today, Dimitrov looks to be on the verge of backing up that prediction. After defeating another surprise fourth-rounder, the much-improved Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain, the 22-year-old Dimitrov is already two rounds further in a Grand Slam than ever before. He'll have a tough time with Nadal, who escaped in three sets versus Kei Nishikori in a match that ran 3 hours, 17 minutes.

"I'm really happy to be out there in the quarterfinal," Dimitrov said. "I'm not even close to satisfaction. I've been working really hard in the past year, especially in the offseason.

"We all know that he has won tons of Slams. He's Rafa. But I just want to put myself in position to play those guys. I had tough battles with him in the past.

"I'm quite happy with the way I'm performing so far. So I like my chances."