Andy Murray is potentially two matches away from becoming the world No 1. And Novak Djokovic is potentially two matches away from stopping him.
With the world’s two best players safely through to the quarter-finals of the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris, there is barely a cigarette paper between them as they fight for the top spot on the ranking ladder.
Yesterday Murray eased past Lucas Pouille 6-3, 6-0 in just 72 minutes and looked every inch the world No 1 in waiting. In just 24 hours, he had changed completely and from the scrappy, fraught and frustrating performance he put in on Wednesday night, he was controlled, error-free and dominant.
Reassuringly, Murray had not been too perplexed by his troubles in his opening match. Thanks to a lack of practice time on the centre court – the matches start early and finish late so there is precious little free time for a bit of a knock-up – he was on the back foot from the start. But after spending three long and edgy sets out there to get the better of Fernando Verdasco on Wednesday, he had more than got used to the conditions come yesterday’s match.
Then there was Pouille himself. According to Murray, the 22-year-old Frenchman was like a right-handed version of Verdasco – and after two and half hours against Verdasco the previous night, the world No 2 could not have been better prepared for his evening with Monsieur Pouille. Not only that but the Frenchman was not nearly as good as Verdasco so Murray was in clover.
As for the world No 1 in waiting, he was playing far better than on Wednesday. He served better, he held his place on the baseline, he charged the net but, most of all, his return game was back on song. He was taking his chances on Pouille’s first serve and he was all over the Frenchman’s second serve like a rash. And given that Pouille was only landing 51 per cent of his first serves, that gave Murray plenty of material to work with.
“I thought I returned well today,” Murray said. “That was good. I mean, I had chances in almost all of his service games throughout the match.
“And on this surface, obviously when it’s a bit quicker, that’s good. If you can get a lot of returns back in play, it puts pressure on the server, and if you’re getting a good hit on them, not just putting them in the court. But on the second-serve return, I was getting a good hit on them, you’re rushing them immediately on the server quite quickly. So that was good.
“My first match was hard. Fernando was making all the points and I was just hustling. Today I was able to dictate a few more points.”
Murray had dragged himself out of bed early yesterday morning in order to get a bit more practice time on the centre court and even though he had finished late in the evening the night before, he still looked spry enough.
He has played an awful lot of tennis in the past few months and there is always the fear that, at some point, he will hit the wall but so far, so good.
The faster conditions in Paris are doing him a few favours and he looks to have more than enough gas in the tank to take him through this week and on to the ATP World Tour Finals in London.
“I woke up early this morning to try to practice on the court but I felt all right once I got going,” he said.
“I think because of the speed of the court the rallies are short. It’s not always the length of the match that you have to look at. It’s the length of the points.
“If you play two-and-a-half hours like I did against Fernando [Verdasco], and the length of the points are really long, then that can be tough, but if you play a lot of short points, which I felt there was yesterday and Fernando was hitting the ball huge and won a lot of free points with his serve, as well, it’s not so bad.”