Tennis: Djokovic exit opens way for Murray
He has his visa for China and has done his modelling for the pre-tournament publicity ahead of the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai. Now all Andy Murray has to do is win enough points here at the Paris Masters to qualify for the end-of-season finale, which starts in 10 days' time.
The 20-year-old Scot cleared his first hurdle in emphatic fashion yesterday, overcoming Jarkko Nieminen 7-6, 6-3, and then watched as Fabrice Santoro beat the world No 3, Novak Djokovic, in the match to decide his next opponent.
Murray will have to reach at least the quarter-finals to have any chance of qualifying for Shanghai, but on current form he is among the favourites to take one of the two remaining spots. A third place in the elite eight-man field might also become available, for the talk around the locker room is that Andy Roddick, who has a heel injury and needs to prepare for next month's Davis Cup final, may pull out.
Having won the third title of his career in St Petersburg on Sunday, Murray clearly has the bit between his teeth. He made a flying start, attacking Nieminen at every opportunity, and might have wrapped up the hour-long first set much earlier. The Finn, who reached the final in Basle last week, had to save seven break points in his first two service games, while Murray won 20 of the first 21 points on his own serve.
The world No 26 held on, however, and started to get the upper hand towards the end of the first set. In the tie-break Nieminen made the first mini-break to lead 5-3 after Murray fluffed an attempted drop shot, but the Scot played the next four points faultlessly. Nieminen broke to lead 3-1 in the second set as Murray's level briefly dipped, but the world No 12 then reeled off five games in a row to take the match.
Murray said it felt odd having to worry about the results of his Shanghai rivals as much as his own. "It's almost like the last game of a football season and you know you just need to draw and hope that the other teams lose," he said. "It's tough just to focus on your own matches."
The British No 1 said the fact that he was having to defy the odds after the wrist injury that wrecked his summer provided additional motivation. "I know that if I was healthy the whole year, I would have qualified for Shanghai, no question. I would have had to have won only two or three more matches. I almost view it as a good thing because I still have a chance to do it and I missed three and a half months of the year. If I play like I did today and keep it up for the tournament, I think I'll go there."
If Murray had any concerns about the prospect of facing Djokovic, who has won all three of their matches, they were probably removed when the Serb walked on to court wearing a Zorro mask. Djokovic, who has already booked his place in Shanghai, said later that he was simply entering the Halloween spirit, but it was soon evident that the world No 3 did not expect to be making a serious challenge here.
Having had his wisdom teeth removed last month, Djokovic said he felt at less than 30 per cent of his usual strength. Even with Santoro wearing strapping because of a torn thigh muscle, the world No 39 coasted to a 6-3, 6-2 victory, to the delight of the crowd in the cavernous Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy.
The 34-year-old Frenchman, who plays double-fisted on both forehand and backhand, was once christened "The Magician" by Pete Sampras. The oldest player in the world's top 50 has a unique playing style, full of subtle touches, spins, drop shots and lobs. "Santoro is my favourite player to watch," Murray said. "You won't see a game style like his probably for the rest of my career. He's just a different player, plays some unbelievable shots. I love watching him."
The Frenchman returned the compliment. "Andy's a great player and I love the way he plays," Santoro said. "He has everything: a good first serve, good hands and a great backhand. He always plays the right shots. He looks slow, but he moves very well on the court."