The mathematics of the round-robin system in tennis can get complicated, but Andy Murray kept it simple against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in front of a packed house of 17,800 at the 02 Arena in London’s Docklands.
Just before the ATP Finals match on Friday, coach Ivan Lendl dropped the hint that Murray only needed to win just one set against the Frenchman to guarantee himself a place in Sunday’s semifinals, and his player responded by bursting out of the blocks like those sprinters did at the nearby Olympic Stadium in the summer.
Outplaying Tsonga at every turn, Murray wrapped up the first set 6-2 to reach the last four of the ATP Finals for the third time in his career. Despite a sudden burst of energy from his athletic opponent in the second set, Murray won the set on a breaker to go through 6-2, 7-6 (3).
To the delight of the crowd, which included the London-based American actor Kevin Spacey, Tsonga started to play some entertaining stuff later in the match and won an amazing 31-stroke rally when Murray’s forehand landed inches long.
Murray had also played a brilliant first set against Novak Djokovic earlier in the week and ended up losing, but there was no danger of that here. As his record this year shows — an Olympic gold medal and a first-ever Grand Slam title at the US Open — Murray is now a more formidable competitor than ever.
“I never thought I would see the day when Murray would have such a dominant forehand,” said Peter Fleming, the former Wimbledon and US Open doubles champion.
Murray was asked about his improvement in that area afterwards. “Growing up, my running forehand was my strongest shot,” said Murray, who spent a couple of teenage years practicing in Spain. “But when I came on the tour, I made very few mistakes off the backhand side. I have worked on the forehand for the last couple of years and it has paid dividends. It’s worked well for me this year.”
The outcome of Roger Federer’s match against Juan Martin del Potro, who beat the Swiss two weeks ago in his hometown of Basel, will decide whom Murray faces in the semifinal. If Federer wins he will play Murray but a del Potro victory could see the Scot playing Novak Djokovic. In the latter case, the number of sets won or lost could make the difference. The outcome of the last round-robin match between David Ferrer and Janko Tipsarevic could also influence the makeup of the semi-finals.
Earlier, Djokovic, who had already qualified for the semifinals, kept his concentration long enough to dig himself out of a 1-5 deficit in the second set tiebreak against the big Czech, Tomas Berdych, and also came through 6-2, 7-6 (6).
“It’s the last tournament of the year for most players here in London and it is a challenge to find that last drop of energy, physical, mental, to go as far as they can,” said Djokovic. “In my case it’s the same thing. I have played a lot of matches this year and, for the first time in these ATP Finals, I have won all three in my group.”
The World No. 1 has been lifted by the improvement in his father’s condition after a respiratory problem over the past few days. “Yes, it was difficult to focus,” Djokovic admitted after being reluctant to talk about it last week in Paris. “Good news every day. Makes me happier, makes me play more relaxed on court.”
Later, Djokovic tried to put his life in perspective while talking to Sky Sport’s Annabel Croft, a former British No. 1.
“Considering everything, I think ending No. 1 in 2012 has been an even bigger achievement than last year (when he won three Grand Slams),” he said.
“Things off court have made if difficult but I have been lucky to have the best people around me and I never forget how it started. I was four when I began watching tennis on TV and saw people laying tennis courts outside my parents’ restaurant.
"You can lose perception of reality so it is good to go back to your roots, with memories of childhood. It makes me appreciate tennis so much more. It is a game I love with all my heart.”