We live in uncertain times, which is as it should be in sport – so Roger Federer wants his fifth Australian Open title, Andy Murray his first, and when they meet in the semi-finals on Friday only a fool would make either of them an uncontested favourite. However, one man closer to the action than any poor scribbler, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, pondered briefly, went through the options, and declared for Murray to stand tallest in the final on Sunday.
The Frenchman had not long left the Rod Laver Arena after taking Federer to five sets in a quarter-final sprinkled with magic, so his impressions could not be more immediate or relevant.
"Andy didn't lose one set yet," the seventh seed said, "so he's in a good position. Novak [Djokovic] had tough matches, but I'm sure he's going to be in good shape. Roger had this match, which was tough, but we only played three hours and [34 minutes] because we are aggressive players, and we don't spend too much time in one point. So … I would say Andy."
That will be heartening, but not definitive – even from a player as distinguished as Tsonga. The numbers lately mean less than they once did. The odds shift with the wind.
Murray – who, as Tsonga points out, has yet to drop a set in five matches and whose win over Jérémy Chardy saw him not only play to a pleasing peak but preceded Federer's five-set angst by several hours – will be the fresher and (using numbers that cannot be tinkered with) the younger by six years. Yet this, surely, remains an even-money contest.
None of that will matter, of course, when Murray and Federer face each other in a re-run of an encounter Murray would probably like to forget, the final in 2010. Still growing into his game, the Scot did not do himself justice that night and was afterwards reduced to a lachrymose heap.
If there was any sense of a shift in mood, it might have been in Federer's renewed respect for Murray, which has grown in the past year.
"I've played Andy [a lot] in the last six months or a year, so I know what to expect," he said, "whereas it would be different if I hadn't played him. He has changed his game, playing more offensive. I'm looking forward to it. Obviously he's a great player, and I was very happy for him when he won his first grand slam and the [Olympic] gold. I'm expecting a tough, tough match.
"He's obviously a different player today [than in 2010]. I like the matches with him. A lot of them are very close. I very often have to come up with some great playing against him in the slams when it mattered. But we'll see if I can produce it again."
Can he? There is no formula to calibrate how genius either dissipates or endures. There were moments against Tsonga when Federer looked as vulnerable as a lamb wandering into an abattoir, and then, when it mattered, he roared back like a lion, winning 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-3. Many of the rallies were short and sharp. That will not be the case tomorrow.
There were knowing souls who did not think Federer could dredge up a final effort in the fifth set to see off an opponent buoyed by fresh self-belief.
Tsonga, a talented but diffident player, has come to life under his new coach, the savvy, tough Roger Rasheed, an unforgiving fitness guru who the Frenchman said wanted the win more than even he did. But Rasheed could not hit the ball for him, and Federer closed out the match after a final flickering of French resistance.
Murray, meanwhile, was quick to dismiss the notion that he is "under-cooked", to use a hackneyed expression that means little – except, perhaps, the opposite of knackered. "Today was a decent test," he said of a tricky engagement in a changeable breeze against Chardy, who played his shots from start to finish. Murray won going away, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 in 1hr 51min, some way short of the examination his peers have endured. "But," he said, "I played a lot of tennis in December. I had some good matches in Brisbane. So I can't be disappointed about being in the semis of a slam without dropping a set. That would be silly."
He admitted he felt "probably a little bit calmer", than at the same stage last year. Then he faced Djokovic – and it turned into a five-hour bar fight. It would be surprising if Federer stretched him that far, although, as he pointed out, "you never know for sure", in tennis.
If T-shirts could win slams, Murray's, embroidered with "Prepare, attack, destroy" (which he wore again in a Wednesday night hit-out on the second show court in Hisense Arena) would be potent. It is Ivan Lendl's mantra, the "hit him in the nuts" manual of the street fighter he has been drilling Murray with for a year as his mentor. Murray is ready for a war. Is Federer? We will soon see.
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