In wins of vastly contrasting style and rhythm here on Wednesday the two best players in the world went through to the third round of the Paris Masters, but it is the Serb who will feel more energised and confident.
Murray went to the limit of his resources to beat Fernando Verdasco 6-3, 6-7, 7-5 in 2hr 28min to set up what may be an equally difficult match against Lucas Pouille. Djokovic put Gilles Müller out in straight sets in 1hr 20min, exploding the perception that he was the one carrying all the baggage after a dip in form and contentment. He now plays Grigor Dimitrov, who rarely troubles him.
In Djokovic’s absence from the Tour Murray was racking up win after win to move tantalisingly close to him in the ATP rankings; he would displace Djokovic as world No1 if he won the final and Djokovic were to fall in the semis. That scenario is now very much up in the air.
Gilles Simon, who beat Agut in three sets on Wednesday, disagrees, even though he struggled to stay on level terms with Murray in Shanghai and last week in Vienna. “I think it is possible for him to become world No1 but I sense he is a bit tired – not so much on his level of play or physically,” he said. “He is showing signs of tension.”
Murray has a most welcome ally in his former coach, Amelie Mauresmo. “I’m happy for him,” said the Frenchwoman, who split with Murray in the spring. “He’s been second for a long time, so if he’s not first at the end of the year, I hope it’ll be next year. It would be deserved. He’s one of the most gifted player of his generation, he’s a huge worker, Physically, he’s a rock.”
He needed to be. Murray, exhausted and relieved, said courtside: “It was tough. He was going for his shots, serving huge. When he was behind and even when I was getting the return back, there often wasn’t enough on it. He was hitting a lot of winners, taking a lot of risks, hitting a few lines. I fought hard enough to get the win.
“[The Pouille match] will be kind of similar to today, although he’s a right-hander and is improving all the time. He will have home support which might help him, but I have enjoyed playing here in this atmosphere.”
It did not always seem that way. Murray did well – as he has done so often – to overcome his opponent and, briefly, the crowd, who booed him near the end when they judged his yell of “come on” to have unfairly put Verdasco off.
Murray broke for 5-3, served out the first set in 36 minutes and it was looking like another easy assignment against a 32-year-old opponent he had beaten 11 times out of 12 and who was languishing 44 places below him in the world rankings.
However, when Murray had to save two break points at the start of the second and then failed to handle the Spaniard’s sharp change of direction to fall behind 1-3, there was insurrection in the air. It was classically perverse Murray, who always digs plenty of holes for himself.
For the next hour or so Verdasco played some of the best tennis of his long career, threatening to embarrass the world No2, who he almost put out of Wimbledon in the quarter-finals in 2013, the year Murray went on to beat Djokovic in the final.
Murray broke back for 4-5 and by the time they got to the tie-break, he had regained some of his composure; but he buried a backhand at 5-6 and they went to a deciding set. Murray saved two break points in the 10th game for 5-5, held serve, just, and broke to love when he forced a final overcooked forehand out of his formidable foe.
He will have diminished support against Pouille, who slid 21 aces past Feliciano López and was gifted the result, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4, when the Spaniard double-faulted on match point after two hours of a very tight contest.
Djokovic returned from his enforced sabbatical admitting: “The last couple of months were not easy. Mentally, I’ve had to redefine my goals and things that are happening on and off the court, and just make sure that I’m in a good place.”
Rarely can the words “off the court” have been more loaded. Physically, he seems fine again but the extent of his efforts to repair his bruised spirit surfaced this week. In a two-hour video Djokovic explores the benefits of meditation alongside his hitherto little-known adviser, Pepe Imaz, a one-time fringe player who spreads his life-enhancing gospel under the banner, “Amor y paz” – love and peace.
After his routine win Djokovic was handing out little love to those he reckoned were unfairly depicting Imaz as a weird guru. Djokovic, in stark contrast to Murray’s struggle, played well within himself to overcome the artful challenge of Müller, acing the Luxembourg veteran for the second time in the match to win 6-3, 6-4.
There are as many locker-room opinions about Murray’s chances of overtaking Djokovic as there are among commentators on the US presidential puzzle. A lot of players and former Tour veterans think he can do it, including Roberto Bautista Agut, who reached his first Masters final in Shanghai only to meet Murray at his most obdurate. The Spaniard said: “I think I can see it in his eyes. He’s really focused on getting No1.”
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