Andy Murray lost to Roger Federer for the fifth time in a row but was left with the minor consolation that Novak Djokovic might beat the rejuvenated maestro in Sunday’s final of the Cincinnati Masters and thus preserve his own second seeding for the US Open next week.
Although Murray leapfrogged Federer to No2 in the world in the ATP rankings on his way to beating Djokovic in the Rogers Cup final in Montreal last weekend, he could not do the double against his ageless foe on Saturday, as Federer produced yet more dazzling tennis after a golden run this week to win the second semi-final 6-4, 7-6 (8-6) in an hour and 37 minutes.
Earlier, Djokovic overcame a lethargic start to wear down the unorthodox challenge of the Ukrainian qualifier Alexandr Dolgopolov 4-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-2 in two hours and 20 minutes, a longer assignment but not on a par with Federer’s win over Murray for consistency and quality. The final should be close.
While Djokovic has now drawn level with Murray on 56 wins for the season – ahead of the rest of the field – the Scot will not mind the adversary he has known longer than all the others pulling ahead if he can stop Federer here.
If Djokovic wins – and he has lost only to Murray and Stan Wawrinka in his past 45 matches – he will complete the set of all nine ATP Masters. If Federer takes his seventh Cincinnati title, he will return to his familiar place behind the Serb and avoid him in the US Open draw until the final.
The world No1, however, has form and injury issues. He struggled against Benoît Paire and David Goffin before obliterating Wawrinka in Friday’s quarter-final for the loss of only five games – sweet revenge for losing to the Swiss in the French Open final.
That defeat robbed Djokovic of a shot at a calendar slam, and concerns about a sore elbow – which surfaced in Canada – were compounded here on Saturday when he required courtside treatment for what appeared to be a stomach muscle strain, after pulling up during his service action midway through the match.
He attempted to laugh it off immediately afterwards – “It’s OK,” he said. “It’s a boy” – but he and his team will be more candid with each other in private conversations on the eve of the final major of the season.
Life for Federer, meanwhile, could hardly be sweeter. En route to yet another final here, he has cruised past Roberto Bautista Agut, Kevin Anderson and Feliciano López, giving up just 17 games, before colliding with Murray in what was a tough, high-grade semi-final.
The first time they played, Murray won – here in 2006 – but Federer arrived on a four-match roll.
As he warmed up for their 25th encounter, Federer revealed: “Sometimes, you play too much the percentages [because of familiarity with his opponent’s game]. I think I’m going to go out there today and go for it.”
He was true to his word. Inside the first 25 minutes he had broken serve and forced Murray to save twice, although there was little in it. This was no Wimbledon blowout – or, indeed, anything like the embarrassment Murray suffered at the ATP World Tour Finals in London last year.
Federer, nevertheless, held control of the key exchanges with wicked changes of direction and artful use of slice on both wings, as well as his recent habit of advancing to within just a few feet of the net on his opponent’s second serve. He did it against Anderson and López and repeated the dose just once against Murray.
It was Federer’s first daytime match, Murray’s second – but the Scot had endured by far the toughest path to the weekend, and did well to muster enough energy to make a contest of it.
If the draw dictates that they meet at Flushing Meadows, Murray will hope that a decent rest and sound preparation will arm him with the necessary weapons to prevent a sixth straight loss to an opponent who turned 34 this month but who shows no signs of wilting at the highest level of his sport.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010