This was not how the script was supposed to read. After enjoying the best run of his career over the last two months Andy Murray entered this week's Barclays ATP World Tour Finals hereinLondon as one of the favourites, but a groin injury is threatening to bring a premature end to his participation in the season-ending finale.
Following a lacklustre defeat to David Ferrer in his opening round-robin match yesterday, Murray revealed that he has been affected by a groin strain he suffered in practice last week. The world No 3, who lost 6-4, 7-5, said he might have to pull out of the tournament before his second match tomorrow against Tomas Berdych, who was beaten 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 by Novak Djokovic in yesterday's other singles match.
Murray, who had lengthy on-court treatment for the injury at the end of the first set, said it would be "gutting, really gutting" if he had to withdraw, but added: "You've got to do the right thing sometimes. I didn't know exactly how it was going to feel on the court today. I haven't been able to do too much training this week. I played and didn't feel particularly great. I'll see if I feel any better tomorrow."
It is a bitter blow for Murray, who said he would not have attempted to play if it had been a match in any tournament other than the year-end finals or a Grand Slam event. The 24-year old Scot has been the game's outstanding player this autumn, winning three tournaments in succession in Asia and enjoying a career-best run of 17 successive victories.
He set himself two major goals in the latter part of the season – to improve his world ranking and to do well here – and may not achieve either. Having taken Roger Federer's No 3 spot in the rankings, Murray could drop down again to No 4 if he does not win a match this week and the Swiss reaches the final. Murray would almost certainly have to win his remaining two group matches to qualify for the semi-finals – and even then he would not be certain to go through.
Ferrer, the world No 5, is a fine player and a formidable athlete who keeps forcing his opponent to hit the extra shot, but a fit Murray, in his current form, would surely have beaten the 29-year old Spaniard. Murray had won all five of their previous matches on hard courts, including two in the last two months. Hampered by the injury, however, Murray was unable to move with his usual fluency. He struggled to get himself in position to hit the ball and as a consequence made 44 unforced errors, a huge number for a player who is normally so consistent.
Murray's tennis was as subdued as his bright red shorts were loud. When he is suffering, there are times when Murray seems to find it hard to dig in and rise above his physical difficulties. Instead, his problems are evident in his body language or in the running conversations he conducts with himself at the back of the court. Compare that with Rafael Nadal, whose demeanour barely changed on Sunday evening when he beat Mardy Fish after nearly three hours despite being wracked by stomach pains for the last hour.
Nevertheless, Murray still had his chances, especially after making the first break of serve in both sets. As he has done too often in the past, however, the Scot failed to drive home his advantage and allowed his opponent to break back immediately. Murray made the first break to lead 2-1 in the opening set, but dropped his own serve in the following game in tame fashion, thanks to four missed forehands. Almost the only time in the match when he really opened his shoulders came in the sixth game, when he hit a superb running backhand crosscourt pass and then a thumping forehand winner
The crowd in the 17,500-capacity arena, which was barely two-thirds full, briefly came to life, but for most of the match they were as listless as Murray. The Scot saved the first set point against him when he served at 4-5 but missed a forehand on the second as Ferrer took the first set in 57 minutes. The treatment Murray received appeared briefly to do the trick as he took a 2-0 lead in the second set, but Ferrer levelled for 2-2, taking advantage of another loose game by the Scot.
At 2-3 Murray clung on to his serve, saving two break points. He appeared to have averted the crisis when he broke in the following game, but once again he promptly let Ferrer back into the set, dropping serve with a double-fault. When Murray served at 5-6 Ferrer forced match point with a volley winner and converted it when a poor drop shotby the Scot gave the Spaniard the chance to hit a winning backhand. Berdych, who ended Murray's recent unbeaten run with victory in the Paris Masters 11 days ago and has won their last three meetings, had his chances to beat Djokovic. The World No 1 made a slow start but improved steadily and did not appear to be troubled by the shoulder injury which forced him to pull out of Paris.