If Andy Murray is to reach the semi-finals of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, which begin at the O2 Arena in London on Sunday, he will almost certainly have to beat either the year's outstanding player or an opponent who has won their last three meetings.
Yesterday's draw for the season-ending championships, which bring together the year's best eight players, placed Murray in a round-robin group alongside Novak Djokovic, who is the world No 1, Tomas Berdych, whose most recent victory over the Scot came at last week's Paris Masters, and David Ferrer, who will be Murray's first opponent on Monday afternoon.
It says everything about the strength of the field that Murray is in arguably the easier group. The other brings together Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Mardy Fish. Federer, who is in splendid form, beat Nadal in last year's London final, while Tsonga has been one of the most successful players on this season's autumn circuit. The opening match on Sunday will see Federer attempt to repeat his victory over Tsonga in the final of the Paris Masters three days ago.
The top two players from each group go through to knock-out semi-finals. Murray, who will be making his fourth appearance in the championships, has reached the last four twice, having lost to Nikolay Davydenko in 2008 and to Nadal last year after a three-hour epic.
Although he should beat Ferrer, Murray will have his work cut out in his other matches. Djokovic, who has won three Grand Slam titles this year, beat him in this year's Australian Open final and again in the Rome Masters semi-finals. Nevertheless, Murray had his chances in the latter match to become the first player this year to beat the Serb – he hit two double faults when serving for the match – and won their most recent meeting, when Djokovic retired injured in the final of the Cincinnati Masters. Djokovic has struggled physically since the US Open and withdrew with a shoulder problem after two matches in Paris last week.
Murray finds Berdych a particularly tough opponent. The big-hitting Czech ended the Scot's recent 17-match winning run in Paris and knocked him out of the French Open last year in their only Grand Slam meeting.
"There are no easy matches as it's only the top eight players in the world," Murray said. "That's what is so unique about this tournament. You have to be on top of your game from the very first match. I've been happy with my form coming into the tournament. I've got some great memories from last year."
Murray, who has won four tournaments and lost only two matches since mid-August, is the bookmakers' second favourite behind Federer, who returned recently from a six-week break to win two titles in a row. Of the other players in his group, Fish has had injury problems of late, but Tsonga has also won two tournaments since the US Open.
Nadal, meanwhile, has had a moderate autumn run and has next month's Davis Cup final against Argentina in Seville to consider.
The pairing of Federer and Nadal means they will meet for the first time other than in a final or semi-final since the Spaniard won the first of their 25 encounters in a third-round match in Miami seven years ago.
London calling: Draw details
Group A N Djokovic (Serbia), A Murray (GB), D Ferrer (Spain), T Berdych (Czech Republic)
Group B R Nadal (Spain), R Federer (Switzerland), J-W Tsonga (France), M Fish (US)
Order of play
Sunday Not before 2pm: Federer v Tsonga. Not before 8pm: Nadal v Fish.
Monday Not before 2pm: Murray v Ferrer. Not before 8pm: Djokovic v Berdych.
Murray against his round-robin rivals
v Novak Djokovic (age 24, world No 1)
Djokovic leads head-to-head 6-4. Most recent meeting Cincinnati Masters final (August 2011) Murray won 6-4, 3-0 (Djokovic retired hurt)
v David Ferrer (age 29, world No 5)
Murray leads head-to-head 5-3. Most recent meeting Shanghai Masters final (October 2011)Murray won 7-5, 6-4
v Tomas Berdych (26, world No 7)
Berdych leads head-to-head 3-1. Most recent meeting Paris Masters quarter-final (November 2011): Berdych won 4-6, 7-6, 6-4