The big three in men's tennis are so far ahead in the rankings list that Andy Murray does not have even a mathematical chance of improving his world No 4 position before the end of the year. For a while at the Madrid Masters here yesterday, nevertheless, it seemed that the 21-year-old Scot would at least start to close the massive gap of 1,730 ranking points between himself and Novak Djokovic, the world No 3.
Djokovic, who in turn is well adrift of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, came within two points of defeat against Victor Hanescu before his Romanian opponent retired injured when trailing 6-7, 7-6, 3-1. It was a less than convincing performance by Djokovic, who looked to be feeling the effects of a demanding year. It was at this stage 12 months ago that his aching body started to give up on him, his last win of the year coming in the quarter-finals here.
Hanescu, 27, regularly surprised Djokovic with his thumping backhands down the line and won the first tie-break 10-8 on his third set point when the Serb hit a wild forehand beyond the baseline. Djokovic stood at 5-5 and 6-6 in the second tie-break before converting his second set point by punishing a weak Hanescu forehand with a cracking backhand cross-court winner.
The world No 73 called for the trainer after injuring his groin in the second game of the third set and threw in the towel two games later. Djokovic now plays the big-serving Croatian, Ivo Karlovic.
At least Murray's own place in the ranking list is looking more secure after Nikolay Davydenko, the world No 6, was beaten in three sets by Robby Ginepri. Murray began the week 680 points clear of David Ferrer, the No 5, and has a great financial incentive to preserve his position.
If the British No 1 plays in both the final Masters tournament in Paris and in the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup – for which he has already qualified – and finishes the year at No 4 in the world, he will receive a bonus of $250,000 (£144,000). Only last month he banked $1m (£575,000) after reaching the final of the US Open.
Murray insists, nevertheless, that winning the biggest tournaments has always been his biggest target. "I want to try and do well and win matches, improve my ranking and make sure I'm closer to the guys in front of me, but my goal was not to be No 1 in the world," he said. "I want to try to win Grand Slams. Whether I'm No 3, 4 or 5 in the world is not the most important thing for me."
Not so long ago Murray, Djokovic and Nadal were seen as the torch-bearers of the next generation, but in recent months a new wave of even younger players, led by Juan Martin del Potro, Marin Cilic and Ernests Gulbis, has been breaking through.
Cilic, who plays Murray in the third round here today, said: "I would say that we are quite a good generation. All three of us have a pretty good game. We are all pretty tall and serving quite well. It's usual for young players to be not as consistent at the beginning of the season, but as we get older I think we'll make our mark."
Gulbis took Nadal to three sets here on Tuesday, while Del Potro continued his remarkable run as Finland's Jarkko Nieminen retired yesterday when trailing 6-2, 4-2. Since Wimbledon, Del Potro has won 31 of his 33 completed matches, losing only to Murray in the quarter-finals of the US Open and to Tomas Berdych in the recent final in Tokyo.
Like Del Potro, Cilic takes full advantage of his 6ft 6in frame. The 20-year-old Croatian, who is the world No 24, won his first tournament in New Haven in August and was at the top of his game in his second-round victory here over Fernando Verdasco.
"He plays well on these courts," Murray said. "It's quick here. The ball flies a bit and it's tough to keep the returns down in these conditions. He hits the ball big and if he's playing well, he's going to be a tough guy to beat. He's played well in big matches this year. He beat Gonzalez at the Aussie Open, he had some chances against Djokovic at the US Open and he's beaten Roddick."Reuse content