The greatest year in British tennis for three-quarters of a century could be heading for a fitting climax here this weekend as Andy Murray attempts to win the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals for the first time.
Murray is just two wins away from adding the season-ending title to his Olympic gold medal and his US Open crown, though the 25-year-old Scot was having to wait until last night's concluding round-robin match to find out his opponent in today's semi-finals.
Juan Martin del Potro's 7-6 4-6 6-3 defeat of Roger Federer yesterday afternoon, the Argentinian's second win over the Swiss in a fortnight, means both join Murray and Novak Djokovic in the last four. Bizarrely, however, the format of the tournament meant that the result of the evening match between David Ferrer and Janko Tipsarevic – neither of whom could qualify for the latter stages – would decide the Group B standings and the semi-final line-up.
A win for Ferrer would have set up a semi-final between Murray and Federer, while a win for Tipsarevic would have sent Del Potro through to face the Scot. The final is tomorrow evening.
If the switch to knockout tennis means the tournament will feel more like a Grand Slam event from now onwards, the best-of-three-sets format means there is little margin for error.
"The matches are obviously quicker so you can't afford to start slowly," Murray said. "It's tough to come back if you do get off to a slow start, especially against the best players in the world, so that's a little bit different. The matches are also going to be back-to-back if you do get to the final – normally you have a day's break – so that's a little bit different too, but in terms of the quality of players, it's like [a Grand Slam]."
Federer's defeat by Del Potro provided further evidence that the reign of King Roger may be ending. Federer, who lost the world No 1 ranking to Djokovic last week, had been unbeaten on an indoor hard court for nearly two years and had got the better of Del Potro seven times in a row until the 24-year-old Argentinian beat him in the final of his home tournament at Basle two weeks ago.
Del Potro, who also beat Federer in the 2009 US Open final, has worked hard to return to the top after spending the best part of a year out with a wrist injury. The world No 7, who is 6ft 6in tall and weighs more than 15 stone, has the game to unsettle the best. He repeatedly knocked Federer out of his stride with his ground strokes and even had the audacity to hit a better between-the-legs "hot dog" than the Swiss, which brought a smile to both men.
The first set was tight, but Federer played a poor tie-break, which he lost 7-3. Order seemed to have been restored when the Wimbledon champion made an early break and went on to take the second set, but Del Potro responded admirably in the decider. Having gone 3-0 up, he closed out the win after two hours with a big forehand down the line.
Whoever plays Murray today will have to deal with both the Scot and his home crowd. "Every time I've come to the court it's been great," Murray said of the support he has had this week. "I'm sure the weekend will be a little bit different, a different crowd. And because the format now is a straight knockout, that changes things a little bit as well."
A triumph for Murray over the next two days would cap a year in which the Scot has won Olympic gold and the US Open, Jonny Marray became the host country's first Wimbledon men's doubles champion since 1936 and Laura Robson and Heather Watson emerged as international talents. Marray, who partners Freddie Nielsen in today's semi-finals of the doubles here, could yet put further icing on the British cake.
Murray, nevertheless, does not want to put too much pressure on himself. "I'm happy with how the year has gone," he said. "Whatever happens from now on, I've had the best year of my life so I'll try not to be too disappointed if I don't win. But it would be a great way to finish the year, that's for sure."
Murray's World Tour Finals
2008 (Shanghai): Semi-finals.
Knocked out Federer with third consecutive win in group stage but lost in straight sets to Nikolay Davydenko in semi-finals next day.
2009 (London): Group stage.
Won two of his three round-robin matches and would have reached semi-finals if he had won one more game, but a marathon final victory over Fernando Verdasco was costly.
2010 (London): Semi-finals.
Again won two of his group matches but this time qualified for semi-finals before losing to Rafael Nadal in a three-hour marathon which was one of the matches of the year.
2011 (London): Group stage.
Lost to Ferrer in straight sets in opening round-robin match but then withdrew from tournament because of groin injury.