Having served up caviar on Sunday, Andy Murray could offer only pie and mash to another huge crowd here in East London yesterday at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. The 23-year-old Scot's performance in losing 6-4, 6-2 to Roger Federer was every bit as poor as his victory over Robin Soderling two days earlier had been exhilarating.
The only consolation is that Murray could still qualify for this weekend's semi-finals by winning his last round-robin match tomorrow against David Ferrer, who was beaten 7-5, 7-5 by Soderling in yesterday's second match. There is still everything to play for in the group, with not even Federer certain to go through.
The complicated maths are such that, depending on the result of tomorrow's other match between Federer and Soderling, Murray could still lose to Ferrer and qualify, although he could also beat the Spaniard and fail to qualify. In a similar scenario last year Murray was knocked out despite winning two of his three round-robin matches.
Murray's two matches here so far have summed up his up-and-down season. Every aspect of his game looked in excellent shape against Soderling, yet almost nothing went right against Federer. Murray's backhand, usually his most reliable weapon, misfired badly, his serve was inconsistent and lacked penetration, and his returns were woeful.
"It was a bit strange," Federer admitted afterwards. "Andy's one of the best returners we have in the game so I'm quite surprised. I'm almost a bit shocked, to be honest."
Murray did not pull any punches either. "I did the two most important things in tennis very poorly today, which is serve and return," he said. "Against someone as good as Roger, you can't do them badly. You're not going to win the match."
The indications were not good when Murray kept missing his first serve in the opening game and was broken to love two games later. Thereafter Federer consistently threatened the Murray serve, even using chip-and-charge tactics as his confidence grew.
Murray, in contrast, won just eight points on Federer's serve in the whole match. Having closed out the first set, Federer raced into a 4-0 lead at the start of the second, after which Murray at least won two more games, which could yet prove vital in the qualifying process.
On the rare occasions when Murray upped his game he was never able to build any momentum. Federer made few mistakes but seemed to be playing within himself.
Murray looked washed out and lacking in energy, but he insisted: "I didn't feel flat on the court. Maybe it's just very different to what you're used to seeing from me. That's something that I'm trying to work on, not letting my emotions control how I'm playing. I just tried to stay calm, tried to find a way, and it didn't happen today."
He added: "Normally my return game is probably the strongest part of my game. Today, when I went behind, I didn't put many returns in the court, I didn't put any pressure on his game."
Federer said he still expected Murray to qualify for the semi-finals, while the Scot identified the areas where he will need to improve. "I still feel like I'm hitting the ball fine from the back of the court," he said. "It's the serving and returning that needs to improve a lot before the next match."
Murray has never won so few games against Federer and this match was a total contrast to his crushing victory over the world No 2 in last month's Shanghai Masters final. The Scot still leads their head-to-head record 8-6, but Murray has now lost four of their five biggest contests. Federer has now beaten him twice in a row here at the end-of-season championships.
Murray, nevertheless, will also appreciate that Federer is arguably the greatest player ever to have played the game, a man who is a hero even for other superstars like Diego Maradona, who was in the crowd here again. "I heard he's a big tennis fan, a big fan of mine," Federer said. "I think he was almost more excited to meet me as I was to meet him – and I was very excited."