JUST nine months ago the tennis world reeled at the changing of the guard at the top of the game. The once mighty Roger Federer was stripped of his No.1 ranking and of his precious Wimbledon title as Rafael Nadal muscled his way to the top.
But now that the new season is well into its stride, another shift of equally seismic proportions is taking place and two of the world's top three men are looking nervous. One Andy Murray of Dunblane is barging his way through the ranks, closing in on Novak Djokovic's position as No.3 and treating Federer as his whipping boy. Yesterday Murray inflicted his fourth successive defeat on the Swiss – five if you count his win over Federer in the exhibition event in Abu Dhabi at the start of the year – to reach the final of the BNP Paribas Open 6-3 4-6 6-1. Of all his victories, this was by far Murray's best and his most emphatic. And he was delighted.
"That was the big one for me," Murray said. "I've always had tough matches with him. That's one of my best ones against him for sure."
Federer was in total agreement. For a few minutes shy of two hours, he had been outplayed. Murray was the better tactician, Murray was the better shot-maker and Murray was the more confident player. Save for a brief resurgence in the second set, when Federer had to take more risks than he would have liked, the Swiss was on the wrong end of a hiding – and he was forced to admit as much.
"I played a shocking third set," Federer said. "It was one of those matches where it was very up and down from both ends and today the better player won."
It put Murray into his third final of the year and gave him a shot at winning his third Masters event title. Should he win today – he will face either Rafael Nadal or Andy Roddick – he will reduce the gap between him and Djokovic to just 20 ranking points. With the Sony Ericsson Open to come next week, another big event with bucket loads of points on offer, the Scot could leapfrog Djokovic into the No.3 spot within two weeks.
Against Federer, Murray had a game plan (he always does) but he followed it to the letter and it worked to perfection. Everyone knows that Federer's backhand is his weaker side but few players have the patience and the skill to work every rally to that flank. Yet there was Murray, playing every ball to the Swiss backhand and waiting for the inevitable error.
From facing three break points in the first set, Murray coaxed and cajoled Federer into backhand error after backhand error until, after five such mistakes, he had won the game. One game later and Murray was a break to the good and cruising. The first set was his.
"That's one of the things I've done well in the past," Murray explained. "I've played solid cross court balls to his backhand and he sometimes gets very impatient."
After a set of such punishment, Federer needed to take drastic action. He tried mixing up the play, attacking the net a little more and taking chances by running around his backhand to slap his venomous forehand into the corners. That was enough to win him the second set but it was not enough to beat Scotland's finest.
It is clear that there are some players who haunt Federer. Nadal is obviously one of them but Murray is rapidly turning himself into the Swiss's worst nightmare. From their very first match – the Bangkok final back in 2005 when Murray was a rookie of just 18 – Murray has never been scared or in awe of his rival. Where so many men have trembled in the face of one of the greatest players in the sport's history, Murray has simply studied the Swiss's game and worked out a way to deal with it. Now, after six losses to Murray, Federer looks scared and clueless whenever the two meet. Some of his errors in the third set were appalling while his game plan was non-existent.
Even when Murray slipped and landed awkwardly in the third set, it was Federer who came off worse. After Murray had yelped in pain – he had tweaked a groin muscle – and clambered gingerly to his feet, Federer's concentration evaporated. At the time the score stood at 2-1 on serve in Murray's favour but for the next few minutes, Federer flapped and fluffed shot after shot as Murray raced to a 5-1 lead. The Swiss won just two points in that time as Murray put himself within touching distance of a place in the final.
"He started to miss a few after I fell over," Murray said, "maybe two or three shots in that game and then he started moving around a long way to try and hit forehands and was out of position.
"It was sore when I fell over but after a couple of points it felt OK but we'll have to wait and see when the adrenaline wears off and I cool down and start to stiffen up. It might hurt a little bit then but it feels OK just now."
With Federer neatly dispatched, Murray was able to put his feet up while Roddick and Nadal got to work in the heat of the day. Whoever wins, it matters not to the Scot – he beat Roddick to win the Doha title and beat Nadal to win the Rotterdam title. With more wins under his belt than anyone else this year – yesterday's was his 20th – Murray has no cause to fear anyone. It is no wonder Federer and Djokovic are looking nervous.