MELBOURNE (Reuters) - After three heart-breaking trips to the final, Andy Murray secured another shot at Australian Open glory by overhauling Tomas Berdych on Thursday after women’s top seed Serena Williams set up a blockbuster title-decider with Maria Sharapova.
Edged in a marathon first set, Murray fired up after a frosty exchange with the hard-hitting Czech and blazed to a 6-7(6) 6-0 6-3 7-5 victory under the lights of Rod Laver Arena.
The sixth-seeded Scot will contest his first grand slam final since his emotional triumph at Wimbledon in 2013. His next opponent will be decided in Friday’s semi-final between world number one Novak Djokovic and champion Stan Wawrinka.
Murray’s clinical disposal of Rafa Nadal’s conqueror sent an ominous signal to his eventual challenger and thrilled the center court crowd after the women’s semi-finals were earlier wrapped up in straight sets.
With his former assistant coach Dani Vallverdu sitting in Berdych’s player’s box, Murray made redundant any plans the two might have hatched by taming the Czech’s monster serve and cutting him to pieces in the baseline exchanges.
“I changed tactics a little bit (after the first set) but also I was getting more comfortable with the conditions and Tomas’s ball,” Murray said courtside on a chilly, breezy night.
“I made him do most of the running ... which was important.”
Murray sealed the match with a thumping ace down the ‘T’ after three hours and 26 minutes.
Arguably the match was won when the rangy Czech poked the Scottish bear at the change of ends after winning a tense first set.
Glaring at Murray, the Czech muttered a few words and earned a gentle rebuke from French chair umpire Pascal Maria.
The Scot returned to the court a raging bull, throwing Berdych from side to side and returning every baseline rocket with interest.
The late match followed on from some fierce skirmishes earlier in the day when top seed Williams brushed aside teenager Madison Keys, the latest member of ‘generation next’ trying to steal her crown.
Williams was pushed hard by her 19-year-old challenger in a duel between two of the game’s hardest hitters before triumphing 7-6(5) 6-2 to reach her first Melbourne Park final in five years.
Keys burnished her credentials as the next torchbearer for American tennis, defiantly saving eight match points as her opponent roared in frustration before Williams sealed the contest with an ace down the middle.
“She’s obviously a great player,” Williams said courtside, still suffering a cold and breaking into coughs.
“I think she’s going to be winning this tournament very soon and lots of other grand slams.
“I was really happy to see her do so well and be such a great sport at the same time.”
Williams, who retains her world number one ranking by reaching the final, will face the woman she has tormented for over a decade in 27-year-old Sharapova, who trounced Ekaterina Makarova 6-3 6-2 in the first semi-final.
Five-times grand slam champion Sharapova will be hoping a 15-match losing streak against her American nemesis, stretching back to 2004, will have no bearing come Saturday.
Sharapova, a 2008 champion at Melbourne Park, lost to Williams in the 2007 final and again in the final at the 2013 French Open.
Most streaks are eventually broken and Sharapova, fit and in ominous form, took heart from her win over Makarova.
“I think my confidence should be pretty high going into a final of a grand slam no matter who I’m facing against and whether I’ve had a terrible record, to say the least, against someone,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter. I got there for a reason. I belong in that spot.”
As with her quarter-final trouncing of Eugenie Bouchard, Sharapova’s game-plan was devastatingly simple — winding up the forehand and bludgeoning anything remotely short of the baseline.
Sharapova will be busy before Saturday’s final working out how to beat Williams.
“I think her power and her aggressiveness, I think that’s always made me a little bit too aggressive, maybe going for a little bit more than I had to,” said the Russian, whose overall win-loss record against Williams stands at 2-16.
“She’s great at making players hit that shot that you don’t necessarily have to go for.
“It’s been a really difficult matchup for me but I am a competitor.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford and Pritha Sarkar