Nor would it mark the first time he had reached a career-high No2: He did that for three weeks in the run-up to the US Open in 2009.
But if Murray should win the Indian Wells title this year, he would for the first time achieve both at the same time. Indeed should he reach the final and Federer fail to reach the semis—and with the draw throwing the Swiss into the same quarter as No5 Rafael Nadal, that has become a possibility—the No2 ranking would also become the Briton’s.
For Federer, despite holding a 1,400 point lead over Murray, is defending 1000 points this week while the Scot is defending just 10. Murray, indeed, lost his opening matches in the last two years at Indian Wells, but this year, he arrived with two differences: He brought the confidence of an Olympic gold medallist and Grand Slam champion, and he had opted to play no tournaments since reaching the final of the Australian Open more than a month ago. Instead, he chose to attack the demanding Masters double-header of Indian Wells and Miami in peak condition.
He explained to USA Today, ahead of his opener: “I’ll just try and play better, compete as hard as I can and if I’m not feeling great in my first match, just try and hustle, chase as many balls down as possible and try and find a rhythm… I used to play well here when I was younger. I like the conditions, and the last few years it’s just been a struggle.”
His opener, against the 83-ranked Russian Evgeny Donskoy, looked the perfect match-up to play himself into that rhythm. The 22-year-old from Russia had begun to emerge from the ranks this season, reaching the third round of a Grand Slam for the first time in Melbourne and hitting a career-high last month.
Donskoy certainly showed no sign of early nerves, holding serve confidently and returning Murray’s serve to a length. Murray, though, looked match-rusty, and the aggressive play of the Russian forced enough errors to yield break points in the fourth game. The Briton fluffed a drop shot and Donskoy took a 3-1 lead, then defended two break-back points with a couple of sizzling forehands and an ace, to lead 4-1.
It got worse. Murray was broken again to love, but Donskoy now served into the sun, opened with a double fault, and faced double break point again. Murray dug in, played the percentages and drew an error to pull one game back—but he had hit just two winners in half an hour.
Murray had to dig deep on his own serve again, surviving three deuces and more outright forehand winners from Donskoy to hold—and the pressure switched back to the Russian, who missed every first delivery to concede another break. They were now level at 5-5, and Murray seemed to be building a metronomic rhythm from inside his baseline. He piled on the pressure, but the Russian put up a brave defence to come through a nine-minute service game and halt the flow.
That seemed to relax Donskoy again, and he let loose with some high-power shot-making: a winning lob, a forehand cracker and a backhand winner across a net-bound Murray. It was spectacular stuff, and he broke to take the set, 7-5, in just over an hour.
Donskoy continued to look impressive at the start of the second set, too. His footwork, balance and anticipation were outstanding, getting him into position for some punishing forehands, though he had less penetration on the backhand and too little variety on his serve. He made his first love hold of the match to lead 2-1, but a dreadful volley error handed Murray an early break and the Briton took full advantage.
Looking increasingly confident, Murray cut down his error count and began to drive the Russian further back and further wide. He soon capitalised on the increasingly error-strewn game of his pressured opponent to serve out the set, 6-2, and scored an immediate break at the start of the third.
Murray, his serve now in a groove and his ground-strokes and drop volleys hitting their mark with cruel constancy, accelerated through the set, pausing only to fend off three break points as he served out the match, 6-2. He won just half of his service points in the first set, but dropped only three points on his first serve in the latter two sets combined.
So the match may have been more of a test than expected—especially in the opening stages—but it was nevertheless the near-perfect test Murray needed to get his game well oiled. What’s more, his next match will give him the opportunity to continue the good work, for he will face not the expected seed Martin Klizan but the 79-ranked Yen-Hsun Lu.
Klizan was not the only seed to fall at the first hurdle, as the surprise losses mounted up in the top half of the draw just as they had in the bottom half the day before.
The highest was No14, Juan Monaco, whose dreadful start to 2013 continued. After reaching a career peak at No10 just six months ago, he lost his opening match here, 7-5, 6-0, just as he had lost all his other ATP events this year. In his place, Marinko Matosevic will take on one of the huge-serving men, Ivo Karlovic or Sam Querrey, in the third round for the chance, possibly, to face Novak Djokovic in the fourth.
Other fallers were No25 Jeremy Chardy and, from Murray’s eighth, No22 Alexandr Dolgopolov.
No7 Juan Martin del Potro seemed to be living dangerously, going down a break at the start of both sets before breaking Nikolay Davydenko back to win in straights. He could, eventually, face Murray in the quarters.
One other seed worthy of mention is the 31-year-old American Mardy Fish, playing his first singles match since the US Open. Prior to that, he had also missed the entire spring of 2012 with a heart condition, but he managed to squeeze the last seeded place in the Indian Wells draw, No32. He was, though, nearly squeezed out of the tournament by qualifier, Bobby Reynolds, going 4-2 down in the final set until Reynolds threw in a shocking service game. Fish broke back and went on to take the match, 6-4 in the third.
The American finds himself in a tough eighth—Marin Cilic and Milos Raonic joined him in the third round and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga lined up against James Blake for the remaining spot.
But each of them, ultimately, faces the prospect of Djokovic in the quarters, while Murray remains on course to meet the world No1 in the semis. Should he do so, and win, he might even find himself playing Federer, on the last day of the tournament, for that No2 ranking.