Andy Murray edged out in latest act of epic rivalry with Novak Djokovic
You would have got long odds a few months ago on anyone other than Andy Murray being the first Briton to reach the semi-finals of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals but Jonny Marray achieved just that here last night. The 31-year-old from Sheffield, who also beat Murray to a first Grand Slam title when he won the doubles at Wimbledon this summer, secured a place in the last four of the doubles tournament at the season-ending finale when he partnered Denmark's Freddie Nielsen to a 7-6, 4-6, 12-10 victory over the defending champions, Max Mirnyi and Daniel Nestor.
While the Wimbledon champions are safely through after winning their first two round-robin matches, Murray will not know his fate until tomorrow's conclusion to Group A of the singles competition after he lost his second match to Novak Djokovic yesterday. The Scot and the Serb staged another gripping contest in what is rapidly becoming the greatest rivalry in men's tennis before Djokovic won 4-6, 6-3, 7-5.
Two players from both four-man sections go through to the semi-finals. Tomas Berdych's 7-5, 3-6, 6-1 victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga last night means that everyone in Group A still has a chance of qualifying. In the final round of matches Murray plays Tsonga, while Djokovic meets Berdych.
In the event of players being equal in terms of numbers of wins, placings in the group table are decided either by head-to-head meetings or by percentages of sets and games won. The one certainty for Murray is that if he beats Tsonga in straight sets he qualifies. If he wins in three sets, however, he might not go through if Berdych beats Djokovic. If Murray loses, nevertheless, he could still qualify if Djokovic wins. As clear as mud?
Meanwhile Djokovic, the only player to have won his first two matches, could still fail to make the last four if he loses to Berdych in straight sets and Murray beats Tsonga in straight sets. Tournament organisers might be tempted to hand out calculators to spectators as they arrive.
The Murray-Djokovic roadshow has entertained spectators around the world this year with a series of thrilling marathon matches. Murray beat Djokovic to win the US Open, but this was his second successive defeat to his long-time friend and rival.
Djokovic had expected another drawn-out match of long rallies and swings of momentum and so it proved. Murray played beautifully in the first set, lost the second after playing one poor service game and went within two points of victory in the decider before Djokovic fought back to win after more than two and a half hours.
The quality of the tennis did not quite reach the heights the two men had hit in their Australian Open semi-final or New York final and the drama fell just short of their Shanghai final, which Djokovic won after saving five match points, but it was still great theatre.
Both men are magnificent athletes who keep forcing their opponents to hit the extra shot. Statistics show that Djokovic has run an average of 3.5 kilometres in matches against Murray this year compared with 1.9 kilometres against everyone else.
"It's something I always have in the back of my mind when I play Andy," Djokovic said afterwards. "It's going to be a physically demanding match on any surface. I needed to work for my points. I needed to earn them."
The 45-minute first set, nevertheless, was over comparatively quickly. Murray came out bristling with aggression and broke in the opening game, cracking a forehand cross-court winner after a thrilling exchange. He dropped just three points on his own serve in the first set, but lost the second after Djokovic made the only break in the sixth game, Murray hitting a volley just beyond the baseline when he played serve-and-volley on the Serb's first break point.
Having recovered from an early break in the decider, Murray was leading 5-4 and 30-15 on Djokovic's serve when the Serb hit his way out of trouble. The world No 1 made the final break, courtesy of some superb returns, to lead 6-5. Murray had two more break points when Djokovic served for the match in the following game, but once again the world No 1 held his nerve, completing victory when the Scot put a backhand long.
Murray was asked afterwards what had been the key moments. "About the last two minutes of the match probably," he said. "He broke from 15-40, and then I had 15-40 next game and didn't break."
Marray and Nielsen had an even tighter match, winning 12-10 in a champions' tie-break for the second match in succession to keep up their remarkable run. Marray said: "As we did at Wimbledon, when we got closer to the prize there, we continue to play the same way, enjoying ourselves, having a bit of a laugh on court as well. I think it's helped us to perform the way we do."
Tour finals to stay in London until 2015
The world's best players will continue to come to London for their season-ending finale until at least 2015. The ATP yesterday confirmed a two-year extension to its current contract to stage the World Tour Finals at the O2 Arena. The deal had been due to run out at the end of next year.
The tournament, which has been played in 14 different cities around the globe since it started in 1970, has been a huge success in London, becoming the world's best attended indoor tennis event. More than 250,000 tickets have been sold in each of the four years here, with the current tournament on course to break all records.
Singles: Group B
Roger Federer v David Ferrer (not before 1.45pm)
Juan Martin del Potro v Janko Tipsarevic (not before 7.45pm)
Doubles: Group A
L Paes/R Stepanek v M Granollers/M Lopez (12pm)
B Bryan/M Bryan v A-u-H Qureshi/ J-J Rojer (not before 6pm)