Andy Murray's matches at the Aegon Championships are getting tougher by the day. Having been detained for 59 minutes, 69 minutes and 70 minutes in his first three contests, the 22-year-old Scot was extended to a full 71 minutes by Juan Carlos Ferrero in the semi-finals here yesterday. At this rate he might even have to win a tie-break in today's final against James Blake, who benefited from Andy Roddick's retirement with an ankle injury.
With Wimbledon just eight days away, Murray's game is in splendid shape. The world No 3, a 6-2 6-4 winner over Ferrero, has transferred from continental red clay to the green grass of home with the apparent ease of someone flicking a light switch.
It would be hard to find any fault with Murray's play over the last four days. He has served superbly, with a well-disguised and varied second serve backing up the power and precision of his first. His returns have been as effective as ever on grass and there cannot be a more potent double-handed backhand in the whole of tennis.
The stroke that particularly impressed on this occasion was Murray's backhand slice. The Scot strikes the ball with both back and side spin and when it hits the turf it keeps devilishly low. Murray kept hitting it deliberately short, spinning away from Ferrero's forehand. At full stretch, the Spaniard could do little more than get the ball back over the net, opening up the court for Murray to play winning lobs and passes.
It might be tempting fate, but on the evidence here it is hard to imagine anyone other than Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal beating Murray at Wimbledon, though the Scot himself clearly prefers not to mention the 'W' word. "It's so easy, based on a few matches, to get ahead of yourself," he said after yesterday's win.
"That's a problem I think that a lot of people have in this country. They expect huge things, thinking that it's just going to happen. I need to go out there and do it and make it happen. Any Grand Slams are going to be incredibly tough. It might sound boring, and all sports people say it all the time, but I'm not thinking about winning Wimbledon. I'm thinking about the match tomorrow and then preparing for the Championships the best that I can. There's no part of me that's thinking about winning the Wimbledon title."
While Federer and Nadal will go into Wimbledon without any grass-court competition behind them – the Swiss pulled out of the Halle tournament, exhausted after his French Open victory, and the Spaniard withdrew from this event with knee trouble – Murray is following the route chosen by many previous winners at the All England Club. Nadal, who won here last year, was the latest in a long line of Queen's champions who went on to be crowned king of Wimbledon. Indeed since 1979 only seven winners of this tournament have not won Wimbledon at some stage of their careers. It is also 71 years since a Briton – Bunny Austin – last won at Queen's.
Murray, through to his first final on grass, left the court with blood on the back of a hand and down his shorts after punching his strings in a rare moment of frustration, but if that gave the impression he had been involved in a scrap it was misleading. For the third match in a row Murray did not have a single break point against him. He has dropped serve only once all week and has yet to lose a set.
Although Ferrero made Murray work for his points in the second set, the outcome was never in doubt from the moment the Scot broke serve in the opening game. Ferrero is a former world No 1 and French Open champion but his current ranking at No 90 is a reflection of his declining powers, even if this was the first grass-court semi-final of his career. He is, nevertheless, a nimble mover with fine ground strokes and he offered a very different challenge to the big-hitting game of Mardy Fish in Murray's quarter-final.
Murray took the first set in 28 minutes, dropping just five points on his serve. The Scot even got a Hawk-Eye challenge right, despite having already gone to his chair in the apparent expectation of his usual failure to see eye-to-eye with the video replay cameras. He lost seven points in a row early in the second set but served out for victory after breaking in the seventh game.
"I got off to a very good start in the first set," Murray said. "I've been serving well all week and managed to keep the pressure on by serving well, but I had chances at the start of the second set and didn't take them. He played some good points and some big serves. There were a lot of good, long rallies."
Blake reached his second Queen's final – he lost in straight sets to Lleyton Hewitt in 2006 – after Roddick turned his right ankle in the third game of the all-American contest. Roddick retired with the score at 4-4 and will have a scan today but the early signs were of no lasting damage. Murray has met Blake only once before, losing to the world No 16 on clay in Hamburg three years ago. It will be tough.