This has been an unusual season. Djokovic was utterly dominant for the first half, but Murray has taken up the baton since the start of the grass-court swing. As a result, the two best players on the tour have not met since the French Open final in early June. But the odds on a winner-takes-all meeting here, which would also decide the year-end world No 1 ranking, are shortening all the time after Murray took out Kei Nishikori.
“For the event and for everyone interested in tennis, that would probably be the perfect way to finish the year,” said Murray. “For me and I’m sure for Novak” – who confirmed his own progress to the semi-finals by beating Milos Raonic on Tuesday night – “both of our goals would be to try to win the event.” World No 1s have come in all styles and nationalities.
There have been Swiss grandees, Spanish sluggers and Americans in denim shorts. But have any of them been quite as fond of a marathon as Murray? Even before his epic struggle with Nishikori, Murray had gone past the three-hour mark – which divides the gut-wrenching from the merely tiring – no fewer than a dozen times in 2016. All that practice might have helped set him up for this latest test of mental and physical resilience, which he finally edged by a 6-7, 6-4, 6-4 margin. The match ran to 3hr 20min, making it the longest ever played at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals (at least, the longest to be played over this distance; there used to be best-of-five-set finals before 2008.) Just to add to the challenge, Murray was facing the man with a 77 per cent win rate in deciding sets, the highest ever recorded on the ATP Tour. Nishikori has been a thorn in his side all year, beating him in the US Open quarter-final and extending him to 4hr 54min – the longest match of Murray’s career – in an extraordinary Davis Cup meeting in March. Murray is a big-game hunter who is at his best against opponents with huge serves and predictable patterns of play. But he finds Nishikori – the man with the silkiest hands in tennis – much more difficult to read.
“He does move the ball around extremely well,” said Murray after the match. “Better than anyone maybe. At one stage they put up the graphic on the screen in the first set, said I had made 96 per cent of returns, which at that stage means maybe I missed one. There wasn’t any quick points on his serve. There was a lot of rallies one after another. So it was physically tough.”
Murray also acknowledged that his mood had soured as the contest turned into another lung-buster.
“I didn’t feel like I was hitting the ball as well as I would have liked,” he admitted. “It didn’t matter whether I tried to hit the ball a bit harder, adjusted my position on the court, nothing was helping. So as the match went on, I was becoming sarcastic with myself.”