Andy Murray on cruise control towards world No3 in Asia
Andy Murray is closer to overtaking Roger Federer for the first time in his career with every match he wins
We’re half way through the ATP tour’s Asian swing and, while the top men consolidate their rankings for the WTFs, Andy Murray continues to target Federer’s No3 ranking.
These are important times for the dozen or so men jostling for a place at the World Tour Finals in London in November, and the cream is starting to rise to the surface.
It would be no surprise to see a smug look on the faces of the four who have already qualified. They had, after all, sealed their berths for the good ship O2 London before leaving New York.
But Novak Djokovic, still absent with injury, Rafael Nadal, defending his title in Tokyo, Andy Murray, already with one title in the bag, and Roger Federer, resting up, would never stoop so low.
Instead, their primary concern will be to manage the rest of their season to their best advantage, rehabilitate any niggling injuries, and prepare for a strong run in London.
Two of them may also have something else on their minds. Nadal has never won the WTFs and will be keen to fill that one remaining gap in his resume, but he will also want to be part of a Spanish Davis Cup team aiming to regain the prestigious trophy in December.
Murray has just as prestigious a goal: he is closer to overtaking Federer for the first time in his career with every match he wins – and he’s won 18 of the last 19 he’s played.
The Scot took his third title of the year in Bangkok last week, losing just one set and facing no tie-breaks all week. He won the final 6-2 6-0 in just 48 minutes, and seems to have brought the same relaxed confidence to Tokyo.
His first match in Japan was a tricky one against the unpredictable talent of Marcos Baghdatis, who himself arrived in Tokyo on the back of a run to the final of Kuala Lumpur. Murray won the opening set in a tie-break but the Cypriot came back strongly in the second before Murray took the third after two and a half hours.
Murray’s second match, though, saw him back in top form against one of the fastest risers on the tour this year. The 28-year-old Alex Bogomolov Jr has jumped from 166 in the world to a career high of 38, but he was no match for Murray. The first set was done in 24 minutes, the match in under an hour, 6-1, 6-2, with Murray serving 11 aces and winning 21 out of 22 first service points.
But there is something more to the Scot at the moment than mere confidence. The tightly cropped hair adds a look of maturity, the new flame-red shirts have lifted his pale colouring, and his black shoes and ankle braces seem to highlight the constant bounce in his feet. He is both relaxed and full of energy, unhurried and lightening quick.
He’s also playing doubles with his brother this week””they have reached the semi-finals””and despite putting in long days and plenty of matches, Murray looks strong, fit and unflagging.
He next plays David Nalbandian who found some of his old game against Ivan Dodig after another year plagued by injury. He faced 14 aces from the world No35 and served at under 50 percent but still took out the Croat in two sets.
If he plays well, Nalbandian can tease and test Murray but his fitness does not have the endurance to out-manoeuvre the No2 seed, who looks destined for a final showdown with defending champion, Nadal.
The last event of the Asian swing is the Shanghai Masters where Murray is the defending champion. His biggest threat will again be Nadal as Djokovic, like Federer, has bypassed the entire Asian swing for rest and recuperation of injuries.
Because Federer was a finalist in Shanghai in 2010, he will immediately lose 600 points this year, and that means, should Murray win both Tokyo and Shanghai, he could leapfrog the Swiss in the rankings.
And even if the No3 ranking has to wait until November, the Swiss will have to win his remaining events””Basel, Paris and the WTFs””to hold off Murray until the end of the year.
The absentee Federer and Djokovic will, of course, be dangerous when they do return””fully rested””for an end-of-season assault on Paris and London. Djokovic will surely be looking for a suitable climax to his remarkable year.
The success or otherwise of the top four in the rest of 2011’s events may have wider repercussions for the men in their wake. For unless some of those outside the top 10 can pick up one of the two remaining Masters””the likes of Gilles Simon and Nicolas Almagro””they are unlikely to gain enough points to reach the WTFs.
Others who were close to qualification now look destined to fall off the pace due to injury. Gael Monfils has withdrawn from Beijing and Shanghai with knee injury.
Juan Martin Del Potro, according to Eurosport, has pulled out of Shanghai in favour of focusing on Europe and his preparations for the Davis Cup final.
Argentina has reached the prestigious team final three times before but has never lifted the trophy. If Del Potro and Nalbandian remain fit, they can join forces for the first time since the 2008 final””which was also against Spain.
Another pre-Asia contender fallen by the wayside is Alexandr Dolgopolov, a first-round loser in Beijing and now needing to reach the finals of two Masters.
Richard Gasquet is out of both Beijing and Shanghai with injury and there remains a question mark over whether Robin Soderling will return to the tour when it hits Europe.
Glandular fever has brought an untimely end to a year that started with four titles and may end with Soderling’s exit from the top 10 for the first time in two years””unless he is able to compete in Stockholm, Valencia and Paris.
Conversely, while Tomas Berdych only sits at 10 in the ATP rankings, he is No8 in the race to London and has reached the semi-finals in Tokyo in some style. There, he will expect to face Jo-Wilfried Tsonga who is consolidating his No7 position nicely after also winning in Metz a fortnight ago.
Mardy Fish is in the semis in Tokyo with David Ferrer hot on his tail. Barring any major hiccups, both should also be heading London.
Race to the ATP World Tour Finals in London: the latest
1) Novak Djokovic, 13,295 points
Fifth straight year to qualify: winner 2008; semis 2010
Playing: Basel, Paris, WTFs
2) Rafael Nadal, 9,110 points
Seventh straight year to qualify: final 2010; semis 2006, 2007; injured 2008
Playing: Tokyo, Shanghai, Paris, WTFs
3) Andy Murray, 5,700 points
Fourth straight year to qualify: semis 2008, 2010
Playing: Tokyo, Shanghai, Paris, WTFs
4) Roger Federer, 5,185 points
Tenth straight year to qualify: winner 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2010; final 2005; semis 2002, 2009
Playing: Basel, Paris, WTFs
Favourites to qualify:
5) David Ferrer, 3,670 points
Qualified twice: final 2007; RR 2010
Playing: Tokyo, Shanghai, Valencia, Paris
6)Mardy Fish, 2,685 points
Playing: Tokyo, Shanghai, Basel, Paris
7) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 2,600 points
Playing: Beijing, Shanghai, Vienna, Valencia, Paris
8) Tomas Berdych, 2,350 points
Playing: Beijing, Shanghai, Paris
Chance for reserve places:
Janko Tipsarevic, 2,030 points
Playing: Shanghai, Moscow, St Petersburg, Paris
Gilles Simon, 2,065 points
Qualified 2008, semis
Playing: Beijing (lost first round), Shanghai, St Petersburg, Paris
Nicolas Almagro, 2,280 points
Playing: Beijing (lost first round), Shanghai, Valencia, Paris
Robin Soderling, 2,080 points
Qualified twice: semis 2009
Playing: (awaiting confirmation) Stockholm, Valencia, Paris
Juan Martin del Potro, 2,050 points
Qualified twice: final 2009
Playing: Stockholm, Vienna, Valencia, Paris