Nearly four years after he last occupied the No 2 berth in the world rankings, Andy Murray is one win away from again being officially recognised as the second- best player on the planet. If he beats David Ferrer in this afternoon's Miami Masters final to claim the 26th title of his career, the 25-year-old Scot will replace Roger Federer at No 2 in tomorrow's updated world rankings.
It would be well-deserved recognition after the best nine months of Murray's career following his first appearance in a Wimbledon final, his first Grand Slam title (at the US Open) and his gold-medal heroics at the Olympics. Had his form not dipped recently in the nine Masters Series events, which carry the most ranking points after the Grand Slam tournaments, he would have returned to No 2 much earlier. Murray won his last Masters Series title in Shanghai 18 months ago.
In moving into second place behind Novak Djokovic, Murray would also emphasise the changing of the guard at the top of the world order, even if Rafael Nadal's comeback victory in Indian Wells last month suggested it would be unwise to write off the Spaniard. Should Murray beat Ferrer, tomorrow will be the first day since November 2003 when neither Federer nor Nadal has been ranked in the world's top two.
Murray, nevertheless, will be taking nothing for granted against Ferrer. The 30-year-old Spaniard, who will return to No 4 in the rankings tomorrow, is the only player other than Murray, Federer, Nadal or Djokovic to win any of the 31 Grand Slam or Masters Series events played since November 2010.
"David deserves to be No 4 because of his consistency," Murray said. "He's also started to play better in the big events in the last few years. He made the quarters of Wimbledon, semis of the French Open, semis of the Australian Open, semis of the US Open. It will be a very tough match.
"When you play against him the points tend to be very physical because he moves extremely well. Ferrer has a great attitude on the court. He fights for every single point. You're going to have to do more running than against some players, who at 30-0 or 40-0 down may just miss or almost give you a point. It's not like that with him. He plays every single point hard."
While Ferrer earned his place in the final by ending Tommy Haas's remarkable run, winning 4-6 6-2 6-3, Murray beat Richard Gasquet 6-7 6-1 6-2, despite dropping a set in this year's tournament for the first time. Murray double-faulted on break point when serving at 5-4 and then lost the tie-break 7-3. However, the Scot quickly took control of the second set, while Gasquet became increasingly troubled by an ankle problem.
"I realised I had to cut out the unforced errors," Murray said afterwards. "I did a good job of that. Halfway through the second set I started to find the right way to play, the right shots to go for."
Gasquet refused to blame physical difficulties for his defeat and said the problem was that Murray does everything well. "He's the best defender in the world and he never misses," the Frenchman said.
Laura Robson, Murray's mixed- doubles partner at the Olympics, will also be playing in a final in Miami today. The 19-year-old Briton has joined forces in the doubles for the first time with the 39-year-old American Lisa Raymond and is through to her maiden doubles final on the main tour. Robson and Raymond face Russia's Nadia Petrova and Slovenia's Katarina Srebotnik.
The contrast between the Briton and the American could hardly be greater. Raymond, whose regular partner, Sam Stosur, is injured, won the first of her 79 career doubles titles before Robson was born. Robson, meanwhile, rarely plays doubles. Before arriving in Miami the 2008 junior Wimbledon champion had played only four women's doubles matches in the past nine months (other than in the Fed Cup), and lost them all.
Serena Williams, of the United States, the world No 1, won her sixth Miami title yesterday when she came from behind to deny the world No 2, Maria Sharapova, in the women's singles. Williams, who has now beaten the Russian 11 times in a row, won 4-6 6-3 6-0. Sharapova has the equally unenviable record of having lost in all five of her appearances in the final at Crandon Park.