The near-capacity crowd in the O2 Arena greeted Andy Murray with rapturous applause as he took to the court on Monday afternoon. The Scot had not played on British soil since his heroic run to the Olympic Gold Medal in August; in the meantime, he has won the US Open and cemented his position as one the best three players in the world. Many of Murray’s legions of fans are now expecting, rather than merely hoping, that their man will deliver, and he will be the focus of much attention this week at the season-ending World Tour Finals.
But winning this tournament will represent one of the most difficult tasks of Murray’s year, as there are no easy match-ups in the elite eight-player event. Murray trailed 3-4 in his head-to-head with Tomas Berdych, his first opponent in Group A, and it was the Czech who got off to the better start in Monday’s clash. Rather than ripping through the ball with his trademark powerful groundstrokes, Berdych was choosing to hit with more topspin, which frustrated Murray into a series of errors. Berdych broke for 4-2 and held on to take the first set 6-3, fending off seven break points in the process.
A much-improved area of Murray’s game has been his mental approach. Although he still becomes visibly frustrated at missed opportunities and avoidable errors, in 2012 Murray has been better at controlling his emotions and moving on from disappointing passages of play. So it proved at the beginning of the second set. After falling behind 15-40 in his second service game, Murray saved both break points with a brave volley followed by a big serve. In the next game, he finally converted his 11th break point when Berdych hit a forehand long. Each man held serve for the remainder of the set, and although Berdych came close to breaking back at 2-5, a couple of 135mph serves from the Scot helped him win the set and take the match to a decider.
Both men held serve at the beginning of the third set, but Murray produced a superb return winner to open a 15-40 advantage in Berdych’s second service game. With the Czech’s forehand no longer as potent force it was at the beginning of the match, an error gifted the break to Murray, who then consolidated to move ahead 4-2. There was to be little drama in the remaining games, as Murray held serve with increasing ease and Berdych struggled to find a way to penetrate the US Open champion’s solid defence. After 2 hours 16 minutes of play, Berdych sent his final return long to hand the third seed a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory.
Murray will have been relieved to get through such a tough opening encounter, especially after a series of difficult losses in recent weeks, in which he has held match points but failed to close. Nevertheless, he will have to play more consistently if he is to secure a place in the semi-finals in London. Although his winners tally of 36 against Berdych was impressive, he converted only 2 of 12 break points. His next opponents, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga and Novak Djokovic, are unlikely to award him so many opportunities.