Andy Murray is closing on the No 3 position in the world rankings but the No 1 slot looks likely to remain outside his grasp for some time yet.
Rafael Nadal last night confirmed his status as the world's best player with a resounding 6-1, 6-2 victory over the 21-year-old Scot in the final of the Masters Series tournament in Indian Wells. Murray, who had beaten Roger Federer in Saturday's semi-finals, was rarely in contention in a match dominated by high winds. Nadal, claiming the 33rd title of his career and his 13th Masters crown, handled the conditions much better than the world No 4, who suffered his most emphatic defeat since losing to the Spaniard in last year's Wimbledon quarter-finals. Nadal has now won six of his eight matches against Murray, although the Scot had won their two previous encounters.
Nevertheless, Murray can take plenty of satisfaction from his performances in the Californian desert, where he was making his comeback from the virus that kept him out of Britain's Davis Cup tie against Ukraine two weekends ago. His prize money of $295,500 (about £204,000) took his tour earnings this year to more than £650,000, while his run to the final has put him within touching distance of Novak Djokovic's position as the world No 3.
With cross-court winds gusting at speeds of up to 50mph, the conditions could hardly have been tougher. The players regularly lunged to reach shots that would otherwise have been routine, while balls struck with anything less than full power often drifted off course. Both men had to serve with caution, which nullified one of Murray's key advantages, while the Scot never got his feared backhand going.
Although the conditions were the same for both players, it was the Scot, cursing and berating himself, who let the frustrations get the better of him. Nadal kept his concentration throughout and focused simply on keeping the ball in play, while Murray never seemed sure whether to attack or defend.
The wind was a major factor in the first break of serve. At 1-2 and deuce Murray was distracted by a piece of paper blown across the court, but the umpire refused to replay the point, saying he had not seen it. Murray went on to lose the game when he put a volley out.
Murray was still muttering about the incident two games later. At 30-30 he was in command of a point when another piece of rubbish swirled across the court. This time the umpire stopped play and Nadal went on to win both the replayed point and the game for his second break. The Spaniard served out to take the set in 42 minutes.
Nadal, who had to save five match points to beat David Nalbandian earlier in the tournament, broke again in the fifth game of the second set, at which point Murray appeared to decide that his only possible escape route would be to attack the net.
Two games later, however, Nadal broke again, thanks to a combination of his own clever lobs and relentless retrieving and Murray's failure to put away his volleys. The Australian Open champion served out to love to take the match after just 80 minutes, converting his first match point when his opponent mishit a forehand.
"Rafa deserved to win today," Murray said afterwards. "He played great. The conditions were difficult and he dealt with them incredibly well."
Murray's semi-final victory was his fourth in succession over Federer and one of his most impressive yet. Mercilessly targeting the former world No 1's backhand, Murray won 6-3, 4-6, 6-1. Federer's form tailed off badly in the final set and he finished with a tally of 32 unforced errors.
"He's a great counter-puncher and reads the game really well," Federer said afterwards. "He's got great feel and he's very confident at the moment. He knows he doesn't need to play close to the lines because he knows he can cover the court really well. I think that calms him down mentally."