Andy Murray can still win the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals but the 22-year-old Scot suffered a chastening defeat here last night. Murray had every right to go into his second round-robin match against Roger Federer with his confidence high, but the world No 1 demonstrated once again what a master of his craft he is. Federer won 3-6, 6-3, 6-1, recovering from a patchy first set to brush Murray aside with a beautiful display of attacking tennis.
Federer had lost six of his previous nine meetings with Murray, but, as the attacker facing the counter-puncher, he believes the outcome of their matches is always in his own hands. This hugely impressive win will only have reinforced that view. Once he had found his range the Swiss swept to a crushing victory that ensured he will end the year as world No 1 for the fifth time.
Although Murray has made an encouraging return following his recent six-week lay-off with a wrist injury, he is still clearly some way short of his best. The world No 4 is finding it hard to maintain his form in matches and on this occasion was badly let down in the latter stages by his serve. He made eight double faults and failed to find the target with too many of his first serves.
"In the first set, at least when I was behind in games, I was coming up with big serves and was able to dictate the points, but after that I served pants," Murray said. "I didn't play well. It happens sometimes. I didn't play well and I made mistakes. It's difficult against him if you miss so many first serves because you put yourself under a lot of pressure."
The result, nevertheless, combined with Juan Martin del Potro's win against Fernando Verdasco earlier in the day, decided nothing in the group. Two players in each of the two four-man sections go through to Saturday's semi-finals and Group A will be decided by tomorrow's final round of matches, in which Murray plays Verdasco and Federer meets Del Potro.
Everything is still to play for: any two of the four can still qualify, a second win does not guarantee progress and there is even a scenario where a player could go through having won just one match. If players are tied on the same number of wins, the placings in the group are decided by a countback system in which head-to-head results count first, followed by the percentage of sets won and then by the number of games won.
Murray's reading of the situation was simple. "If I win in straight sets against Verdasco, then I think there's a great chance that I'll go through," he said.
The crowd had been surprisingly subdued during Murray's opening victory against Del Potro on Sunday, but with Federer on the court they were much more vocal. For a British audience it was the most eagerly awaited match since Murray met Andy Roddick in the semi-finals at Wimbledon this summer.
Both players were welcomed into the arena with a huge roar by the capacity attendance of 17,500, though it was Federer who marginally won on a decibel count. Murray may have been on home territory, but Federer, through his Wimbledon exploits, has won a special place in British hearts. Since 2003 he has lost only one match in London, the 2008 Wimbledon final to Rafael Nadal. How much the occasion meant to both players was evident from the first two games. Federer won a blistering 23-stroke opening point and after taking advantage of a succession of nervous Murray mistakes celebrated his break of serve with a roar of "C'mon!" Murray responded in kind and stood clenching his fists in delight after breaking back with a winning backhand cross-court pass.
Murray broke again at 3-2 after relentlessly attacking Federer's weaker backhand. The Scot's play was starting to win over the crowd, who were soon chanting "Murray! Murray!" Nevertheless an over-enthusiastic fan almost cost Murray his advantage in the next game by calling out as the world No 4 was about to hit a second serve at 15-30. A double fault followed, but Murray saved the two subsequent break points with big serves and had the crowd roaring in delight when he celebrated holding serve with a joyous slam-dunk smash.
At 5-3 Murray momentarily seemed to lose his nerve when he scorned three set points from 40-0 up, the last of them after Federer had ruthlessly punished a 79mph second serve when Murray again seemed distracted by a shout from the crowd. To his great credit, however, the Scot promptly hit an ace and a service winner to take the set in 42 minutes.
Federer's forehand and serve, usually two of his most potent weapons, had not been firing with their usual accuracy in the first set, but all that changed in the blink of an eye. In the last two sets Federer dropped only three out of 31 points on his first serve and in the second Murray did not win a single point against serve until the seventh game.
The only break in the second set came in the sixth game, when Federer hit a lovely inside-out forehand winner at 15-40. In the third set Federer broke serve three times in succession from 1-1. Time and again he piled into Murray's tentative second serves to put his opponent under pressure.
Both men may yet qualify for the semi-finals and they could meet again in the final on Sunday. If that were to happen, it is clear who would be the favourite.