Having waited for years to shake up the tennis establishment, Novak Djokovic clung jealously to his throne as he marshalled his forces to put down an attempted coup by Andy Murray at the Australian Open.
The Serbian's 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (4-7), 6-1, 7-5 semi-final win at the Rod Laver Arena ensured at least another few months of grand slam exile for the fourth-seeded Briton Murray, but also showed the price of power for world number one Djokovic.
Having just won a nearly five-hour war of attrition against the Scot, ironman Djokovic must recover for another brutal test against world number two Rafa Nadal in Sunday's final.
The Spaniard was pushed hard by great rival Roger Federer in their four-set semi-final on Thursday, but finished the match brimful of confidence and full of running.
He also has an extra day's rest and if he watched Djokovic's match on television, he would have delighted in every slogging minute the Briton put him through.
"There is no secret, it is going to be physical again," said Djokovic, who advanced to his third straight grand slam final.
"I will do my best to recover. I have a day-and-a-half.
"I will try to get as much sleep and recovery program underway and hope for the best.
"I think that's going to be crucial, for me to recover and to be able to perform my best, because Rafa is fit.
"He's been playing well. He had an extra day. He definitely wants to win this title."
As in his quarter-final match against Spaniard David Ferrer, Djokovic was reduced to a panting, squatting mess a number of times during the Murray clash.
The Serb said he had seen a doctor about his stuffy nose and put it down to an allergy, but said there was little that could be done.
"I've been trying to do everything possible to clear that out. But we are all surrounded with the flowers," he said.
"It's really difficult to take that away. But still no excuses."
After Murray's last act of resistance - a scrambling forehand that failed to clear the net - the relief on Djokovic's face was palpable as he fell to his knees on centre court, leaned back and roared at the stars.
The Murray he had played was a far different beast to the petulant opponent he destroyed in three sets in the final last year on the way to a 41-match winning streak and three grand slam titles.
In the lead-up to this year's tournament, the long-time friends and hit-up partners were kept apart on the orders of Murray's new coach Ivan Lendl, who saw no value in the matey games of soccer held between the rival camps in years past.
Djokovic said the Murray that emerged from lockdown was a more assured breed and willing to take his chances.
"He was more confident on the court. He was taking his chances. He was being more aggressive. I think he was playing better," the 24-year-old said.
"He's already a complete player. Even last year he was. It's a matter of, you know, having a little bit of luck combined with a choice of the right shots at the right moments, and that's it.
"I mean, he's so close to winning a grand slam. He's one of the best players in the world, that's for sure."
Murray is convinced he is now a better player than last year and on an upward curve.
"Everybody matures at different ages and different rates. I feel now like I'm ready mentally (to challenge the top three)," Murray said.
"Physically I can still get better, for sure. But in comparison to how I played last year, it was much, much better.
"Tonight's match was important for many reasons. Obviously I wanted to win first and foremost, but after last year, the year that Novak had, I think there's a very fine line between being number one in the world and being three or four.
"I think that gap, I feel tonight I closed it," added Murray, who has credited Lendl with boosting his confidence.
"My job over the next two or three months is to surpass him and the guys in front of me."
ReutersTags: sport, tennis, australia, vic, melbourne-3000 First posted January 28, 2012 13:48:29