There have been times this year when you have wondered whether Andy Murray would ever fully realise his potential. There have been others, like his opening match here yesterday at the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, when you feel it can only be a matter of time before the 23-year-old Scot achieves his lifelong ambition to win a Grand Slam title.
Murray's 6-2, 6-4 victory over Robin Soderling, the man who replaced him at No 4 in the world rankings by winning his first Masters Series title in Paris last weekend, was even more emphatic than the scoreline might suggest.
Quickly mastering the medium-paced court and the low bounce, Murray bamboozled Soderling, who has never been the most fluid of movers or instinctive of players, with a deadly combination of sliced backhands, delicate drop shots, rapid changes of pace and balls drilled low to the 26-year-old Swede's feet. Murray, flowing as freely around the O2 Arena as the adjoining River Thames, repeatedly drew his man into the net before beating him with passing shots or pressuring him into volleying errors.
You sensed that Robin would have struggled to win some of the points even if Batman had joined him on court. Soderling, who is one of the game's best players indoors, has a big serve and thunderous ground strokes, but Murray hit 10 aces to the Swede's two and 27 winners to his opponent's 14. There were plenty of occasions when Soderling went on the attack only for Murray to come off the ropes and floor him with a counter-punch.
The Scot's delight at his performance was evident in his leap of celebration at the end. He still has plenty of work to do here, but a straight-sets victory was the perfect start to a tournament that is second in importance only to the four Grand Slam events.
As he did last year, Murray will meet Roger Federer in his second round-robin match tomorrow. The Swiss, whose victory 12 months ago helped to eliminate the Scot from the tournament, opened his account with a 6-1, 6-4 victory over Spain's David Ferrer, who will play Murray on Thursday. The two men who finish top of the two groups – in today's first matches in Group A Rafael Nadal faces Andy Roddick and Novak Djokovic plays Tomas Berdych – go through to next weekend's knock-out semi-finals.
There is much at stake this week, including 200 ranking points for each round-robin victory, and Murray, who began the tournament only 20 points behind Soderling, could yet finish the year as world No 3. An undefeated champion here would earn 1,500 ranking points, not to mention $1.63m (about £1.02m) in prize money.
Ticket sales are again expected to top 250,000 over the week in a stadium which is an excellent venue for tennis. There was barely a spare seat in the 17,500-capacity arena for the opening session, although the crowd were often curiously subdued. Murray was given a big welcome when he arrived in the arena and the crowd warmed to his performance at the end, but for long periods in between they were strangely quiet. Perhaps they wanted more of a contest.
Murray, wearing a black shirt with green and white diamonds that made him look like an entrant in an Ivan Lendl lookalike competition, broke serve in the third game with some sumptuous play. A running forehand cross-court pass and a backhand pass down the line created three break points, the third of which he converted with a backhand return winner.
Four games later Murray set up another break point by hitting a succession of heavily sliced backhands before thumping a forehand winner. A netted backhand gave him the second break and he served out for the set, finishing off with a cleverly improvised drop shot.
The second set was closer. In the sixth game Soderling forced his only break point, which Murray saved with an ace, but in the next the Swede hit two loose forehands into the net and a double fault to give the Scot what proved to be the decisive break.
"I think tactically it was a great match," Murray said afterwards. "I think I played very smart tennis today. Even when it was getting tough in the second set, when there were a lot of long rallies and I was on the defensive quite a lot, I stuck to my tactics well.
"I moved well today. In the second set I had to do a lot of running. The slice worked well. I passed smart as well. I didn't always go for the lines. I hit a lot down to his feet, just made him play a lot of uncomfortable shots."
He added: "I think all of the players want to play their best tennis here. It's a big win, to beat someone that's ranked higher than me. The guy's No 4 in the world. He's a very, very good player."
Another full house – Diego Maradona was among those in the crowd – watched Federer ease to victory in the evening session. The Swiss never looked in trouble after winning the first four games, although Ferrer did eventually make him break sweat. On yesterday's evidence Federer will face a much stiffer challenge tomorrow.
* The men's off-season will be increased by two weeks to seven weeks from 2012. The Paris Masters, which is the last Masters Series event of the year, and the World Tour Finals will now be played back-to-back rather than with a week between them. The 2012 finals in London will start in the week beginning 4 November.Reuse content