When Andy Murray returned home from the US Open last month he set himself two goals for the rest of the year: to replace Roger Federer at No 3 in the world rankings and to perform well at the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London. Part one of that mission will be accomplished if the 24-year-old Scot wins his third tournament in succession by retaining his Shanghai Rolex Masters title here today, while part two will surely follow next month if he keeps playing like he has on the current Asia swing.
Murray, who crushed Japan's Kei Nishikori 6-3 6-0 in just 56 minutes in yesterday's semi-finals, goes in search of his 15th successive victory – and his 13th in the past 18 days – when he faces David Ferrer in this afternoon's final. Victory would bring the prize-money the world No 4 has won in the past three weeks to more than $1 million (about £645,000).
Ferrer, who lost to Rafael Nadal in his only two previous Masters Series finals last year, came from a set down for the third match in a row to win his semi-final against a fellow Spaniard, Feliciano Lopez, 6-7 6-3 6-3. The world No 5, who last week secured the fifth spot at the World Tour Finals, has won three of his seven matches against Murray but all the wins were on clay and he has lost their previous three meetings, all on hard courts, which is the surface here.
Nishikori, playing in his first Masters Series semi-final, is regarded as one of the game's most promising young players but had no answers to Murray's excellence. The 21-year-old world No 47, who said afterwards that Murray played "like a genius", won only one point when the Scot put his first serve in court and took just 12 points in the last set. Murray won the last eight games in succession.
"I served well," Murray said. "I got a lot of free points on my serve and didn't give him any chances. If you can do that, then you can make life easy for yourself."
For the first time in his career Murray is now seeking his third title in as many weeks. Indeed, since losing to Kevin Anderson in Montreal two months ago he has lost just once in 25 matches, winning titles in Cincinnati, Bangkok and Tokyo along the way. His only defeat was against Nadal in the semi-finals of the US Open.
While the absence of a number of top players – most notably the injured Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer – has helped Murray to cut a swathe through Asia, the Scot has done everything asked of him over the past three weeks. He has been at the top of his form and delivered one of the performances of his life in the final in Tokyo last weekend, when Nadal won just four points in the deciding set.
Although he needs to win two more titles to match his most productive season, in 2009, there can be no doubt that this has been the best year of Murray's career, despite the slump after his defeat by Djokovic in the Australian Open final. He reached the semi-finals of all three subsequent Grand Slam tournaments, losing to Nadal on each occasion, and returning to No 3 in the world rankings would be a just reward for his performances, though winning a first Grand Slam titleis what he wants morethan anything.
"It would be nice to finish the year off as No 3 if I can because that would be the highest ranking I've finished [the year] at," Murray said. "It's not the ultimate goal, but it's a step in the right direction."
Federer has not been out of the world's top three since June 2003. But even if Murray loses today the Swiss still looks likely to be overtaken by him in the coming weeks, possibly at next month's Paris Masters. Federer has a large number of points to defend between now and the end of the season, having won in Basle and London last year and made the semi-finals in Paris. Murray is unlikely to play again before Paris, a tournament in which he has never gone beyond the quarter-finals but would love to win.