Grigor Dimitrov promised much in Murray’s cause on Thursday before Djokovic spluttered then fizzed to a 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 win in the third round of the last Masters of the season. It was his sixth win against the Bulgarian in seven matches, and he moves on to an even bigger fall guy, Marin Cilic, in the quarter-finals on Friday. If the Serb wins there, he tightens his grip on the crown he has held for 122 weeks; if he reaches the final, he keeps it.
Murray, who needs to beat anyone but Djokovic in the final to become the first British player to reach No1 in the modern era, has been No2 for 76 weeks. He reckons that is quite long enough, although he is realistic enough to say he has a better chance of getting to the top in the spring, when he has fewer points to defend.
He kept the 2016 narrative running by beating Lucas Pouille 6-3, 6-0, a much-improved performance after his three-set struggle against the world No44 Fernando Verdasco on Wednesday, and he can look forward to a quarter-final against Tomas Berdych on Friday with renewed vigour and confidence.
It was his 17th win in a row in an autumn run as good as he can ever have hoped. He saved five break points and converted six. His serve and movement were in good order and there was a smile on his face.
“I returned well and was hitting the ball cleaner from the back of the court,” Murray said. “Yesterday was hard. Fernando was making all the points and I was just hustling. Today I was able to dictate a few more points.
“I saw the first three games of Novak’s match today and then went to chat with my coach Jamie [Delgado] about tactics. You don’t want to waste too much energy and stressing over his matches. My goal is to finish as strong as possible and the best way to do it is to concentrate on myself.”
Against Pouille, whose threat grows by the tournament, Murray was almost as commanding as in his two previous easy wins against the Frenchman, who did not lack for commitment. Murray had a few problems off the ground in the first set, framing a couple of returns that almost drove him to racket abuse, and Pouille continued to hit hard and deep.
Murray steadily pulled away from the world No17, who is a definite contender to get into the top 10 in the next year or so but he is still a good way short of his opponent’s level. Murray was a set and 3-0 up after only an hour and finished the task without further inconvenience, a standout highlight a running forehand, flicked with pure wrist power, for 30-0 in the fourth game. Within moments he was raising his hands in triumph and relief after bagelling Pouille with an unreturnable serve after an hour and 12 minutes. He took more than twice as long to get rid of Verdasco. Murray now plays Berdych after the Czech beat Gilles Simon 6-4, 6-3.
Nevertheless it is clear Djokovic holds more aces. He has won all 14 matches against Cilic, who observed drily after beating David Goffin 6-3, 7-6: “It’s obvious Djokovic likes to play me or, if you want to put it differently, I don’t like to play him as much. But I’m confident. Every match is a new match. The next few weeks for him bring a bit more pressure with the battle for No1.”
After Cilic comes one of the Americans, John Isner or Jack Sock, both of whom had tough three-set wins, over the qualifier Jan-Lennard Struff and the experienced Richard Gasquet, respectively. Djokovic leads Isner 8-2 overall and Sock could take only three games off him when they met in Canada last year. Neither provides much insurance for Murray.
Dimitrov, one of the game’s enduring enigmas, briefly looked as if he would upset all predictions when, hitting freely, he broke for 2-1. The often nervous Bulgarian was then gripped by uncertainty in the fourth and fifth games, which took 25 minutes. Still, he took the set with a classic single-handed backhand down the line after nearly an hour, twice as long as his truncated match against an injured Marcos Baghdatis on Tuesday.
The court was playing more quickly than expected, occasionally skidding and providing grip for top spin, but neither player was settling for short points. Djokovic rediscovered his rhythm to take the second and hit a more convincing groove in the third, forcing a limp closing backhand out of Dimitrov after two hours and 23 minutes.
Djokovic said: “I think my game is where it needs to be at the moment. Sure, I can play better. I know that but you can’t always be 100%”
Earlier, it took Cilic six match points (after butchering the first gimme opportunity) to grind down Goffin after an hour and 53 minutes, and secure one of the two remaining places in the ATP World Tour Finals.
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