THERE was a time when sport was simple: the bloke who scored the most goals, won the most points or landed the knockout punch won the day. Alas, life is not like that at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals.
As the third day of the finals drew to a close on Tuesday, Andy Murray had kept his hopes alive by beating Milos Raonic in straight sets. He had now lost one match and won one match. Raonic had failed to win anything at all, not even a set, while Kei Nishikori, the conqueror of Murray on Sunday, had run out of puff against Roger Federer and, struggling with a wrist injury, slumped to defeat. He, too, had now won one match and lost one. Federer, meanwhile, had made stately progress and had not dropped a set in two matches. Yet no one had a clue who was going to qualify for the semi-final stage.
Federer is the odds-on favourite to go through, however should Murray beat him tonight in straight sets and should Nishikori do likewise to Raonic, that is not a given. And if Murray does win in straight sets and Nishikori beats Raonic in three sets – or Raonic wins in any way he can manage – Murray could go through as leader of Group B and so avoid the winner of Group A on Saturday. At least, that is the theory.
Murray has been here before, though. Two years ago at the O2 Arena, he faced Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in his final group match knowing he only had to win a set to qualify. He did that neatly enough but then struggled to close out the match. In 2009, he won two of his three group matches but was pipped at the post by Juan Martin Del Potro who had also won two matches but had won one game more than Murray as he did so.
CONNECT WITH THE SCOTSMAN
• Subscribe to our daily newsletter (requires registration) and get the latest news, sport and business headlines delivered to your inbox every morning
As a result, the world No 6 is taking nothing for granted today and is trying to ignore the possibilities and permutations and, instead, simply focus on beating that Swiss fella in front of him.
“For me, I know I have to try and beat Roger,” Murray said. “I know I have to win that match. That is the mentality you want to go in with. When you have to step on the court and think: ‘All I have to do is win one set’ – we’re not used to being in those situations. Normally you just concentrate on winning the match so that is what I’ll try and do.”
At least some of the fog will have lifted by the time Murray gets on court. His is the last match of the day so he will know exactly what he has to do to qualify. By that stage Nishikori will have won or lost – and if the Japanese loses in straight sets, Murray can lose tonight and still go through providing he takes a set from Federer – so the Scot’s fate will rest on his own racket strings. That ought to make life easier. But then again, it might not.
“It can work both ways,” Murray said. “If you play first, you don’t have to worry about the other match. You just concentrate on your one. And then you wait and see. But if you are second, it can be a difficult position if you are going in thinking: ‘All I have to do is win a set’. That doesn’t help.
“When I have been in that position before, it has been fairly self-explanatory what I have had to do. Look, everyone knows in these events what is going on. You follow all of the results. It is not like in a slam where there are 64 matches or whatever. There is only one other match that day so I will know roughly what I have to do when I go on the court.”
Federer is expected to have the majority of the support from the crowd tonight, as usual. This phenomenon has far more to do with his 17 grand slam titles and the fact that an awful lot of Swiss fans turn up in London’s east end at this time of year than it has to do with any tweets from Murray about Scottish independence; Federer is a living legend so Murray knows what to expect.
The only way to silence the Swiss fans is to win tonight. It might just help him qualify for the semi-finals, too, although the men with calculators may be the ultimate judges of that.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND IPHONE APPS