Frivolity was frowned upon; jokes were positively out of the question – Andy Murray had just been clumped by Rafael Nadal and he was in no mood to smile.
In the grand scheme of things, losing to the rejuvenated world No 5 was not the end of the world. Thanks to the round-robin format of this stage of the ATP World Tour Finals, and with one win in the bank from Monday afternoon, Murray could still qualify for the semi-finals on Saturday.
I had some hair in my eye, and I just wanted to get rid of it. That literally took two seconds. That was itAndy Murray on his impromptu trim
Should he beat Stan Wawrinka tomorrow, he will be well on his way but even if he loses to the Swiss, he could still squeak through, depending on the other results in the group.
But his collapse from 4-4 in the first set and eventual 6-4, 6-1 defeat was simply not acceptable to the Scot.
For most of this season, Nadal has traipsed around the circuit, racking up defeats and looking like a man who wanted desperately to be somewhere else. But in the last couple of months, the Spaniard has rekindled his competitive spark and his confidence is rising fast.
The end-of-year championships is played on his least favourite surface – indoor hard court – and while he has qualified for the elite event every year since 2005, he has never got his hands on the silverware. No matter – this year, he looks up for the fight and eager as ever to finish his season on a high. And beating Murray so comfortably helped towards that goal.
For the first eight games, Murray was working hard and hanging on. An exchange of breaks at the start of the first set was soon forgotten as the two men settled in for lung-bursting rallies and elongated points – after 30 minutes, they had not got through five games – but it was not to last.
From 4-4, Murray won just three points in a run of 20 to drop the first set and go a break down in the third. And at the start of the third set, the first 12 points contained nine unforced errors from the Scot. Nadal was warming to his task and Murray was flapping at shadows.
“He’s clearly playing better tennis now than a few months ago,” Murray said curtly. “Also I didn’t help myself out there today. I served extremely low percentage, maybe lowest percentage I served the whole year in any match. It was like the low 40s, and in the second set like 35 per cent. That’s not good enough against someone as good as Rafa.”
No, Murray was not happy. So when one brave soul dared to ask him about his hairdressing skills – he trimmed his fringe after three games with his very own pair of scissors – they were cut off at the knees. Was his hair getting in his eyes? “Yeah, a little bit, yeah,” came the dour response. Did he normally carry scissors? “No.” That told them.
Undeterred, the ravening press pack tried again. Was the hair incident a sign that Murray was distracted by next week’s Davis Cup (there were signs that the hacks were clutching at straws here)? This line of interrogation got a swift rebuke.
“I don’t know why such minor things make such a big deal to you guys,” Murray said, sounding like an irritated headmaster. “I had some hair in my eye, and I just wanted to get rid of it. That literally took two seconds. That was it. It was nothing to do with next week or anything to do with the outcome of this match.
“I started the match extremely well, I think. I played a very good first game. Although I got broke in the second game, it was a good game. I was hitting the ball well.
“I held all the way through to four-all from that change of end. It wasn’t like it was something that affected me at all after it happened.”
It all got rather messy after that. Thanks to the round-robin format, all the players know that an early loss can be recovered. And they know that by the end of tomorrow night, the semi-final line-up is set: the winners of both groups play the runners-up in the other group. So, after Novak Djokovic lost to Roger Federer on Tuesday night putting him second in the Stan Smith group, maybe it was not a bad thing that Murray had lost yesterday. If he were to finish top of the Ilie Nastase group, he would have to play Djokovic on Saturday. After losing to Nadal, Murray was lying in second place. The questioner had lit the blue touch paper and was now advised to stand well back.
“I’m not trying to finish second in the group,” Murray said, firmly. “I’m trying to win every match that I play. I hope that’s how all of the players view it. Some people might have different opinions. That’s fine if you have a different opinion to me.
“You certainly don’t want to lose to one of the guys that you’re competing against in the biggest events for the biggest titles in the sport quickly in the second set.
“I’m obviously disappointed with the way the match finished today. I served poorly at the end of the first set and all through the second. Like I said, that’s not going to be good enough against him when he’s playing that well.”
And with that, Murray was off to work on his serve and recalibrate his groundstrokes. On Monday, he had played well; yesterday he was fraying at the edges. There was plenty of work still to be done if Murray wanted to reach the semi-finals.