Murray comes of age with Roddick and Hewitt scalps
Many of the spectators at San Jose's HP Pavilion were no doubt expecting most of the fireworks to explode in the final match of Saturday's evening session as John McEnroe attempted to cap a remarkable week by reaching the final at the grand old age of 47. The preceding singles semi-final featured the top seed, Andy Roddick, who is also America's leading player and the world No 3, but his opponent was an inexperienced 18-year-old without a senior title to his name and ranked 57 places beneath him.
However, as an increasing number of players are finding to their cost, you underestimate Andy Murray at your peril. The Scot produced a mature display of commanding tennis to secure the biggest win of his career as he beat Roddick 7-5, 7-5 in an hour and 29 minutes. He then held his nerve as he beat Lleyton Hewitt in the final two sets to one.
The victory will push Murray into the top 50 in the world and keeps alive the prospect of his ranking climbing enough for him to be seeded at Wimbledon. "That was definitely my biggest win," Murray said after his first victory over a player in the world's top 10. "Beating Roddick in his home country is like a dream come true. I was almost a little sick because of nerves, but in the end I came through.
"In matches like that the crowd doesn't matter. It's just great to be on the court with someone like him. To manage to win against him is amazing."
But Murray, perhaps in an effort to dampen the inevitable expectation from Britain's tennis fans, played down the significance of Wimbledon at this stage of his career. "Wimbledon is not really the most important thing. Probably the most important thing is that I'm improving and my game is getting better," he said.
"I want to get to the stage where I'm 21, 22, fully developed and have worked on every area of my game. It's not so much about the ranking, it's about maturing as a player, knowing how to win the matches, so Wimbledon this year is not the most important tournament for me.
"There's 11 more months of tournaments around Wimbledon and everybody is going to expect a lot from me, but if I'm not seeded there I could potentially draw any of the top-ranked players.
"So if I lose in the first round or if I get to the semi-finals, nothing is going to change too much for me as long as everything is going in the right direction."
The SAP Open, played indoors on hard courts, has modest prize-money of $380,000 (about £220,000), but it enjoys both tradition Newport, Rhode Island, is the only men's event in the US with a longer history and prestige, reflected in the participation of Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt.
While Roddick has disappointed in his last two Grand Slam tournaments, losing to Gilles Muller in the first round of the US Open and to Marcos Baghdatis in the fourth round of last month's Australian Open, there could be no doubting his pedigree as he attempted to win his third successive San Jose title. In 2005 the 23-year-old finished in the world's top three for the third year in a row and won five ATP tournaments to add to the 15 already on his CV.
The early indications were that his game was in good shape. The serve that produced 1,017 aces last year more than any other player was firing until Murray's radar locked on to it. His booming forehand also intimidatedas Murray had to save two break points in the sixth game.
But Murray had shown in wins earlier in the week over Mardy Fish, Yeu-Tzuoo Wang and Robin Soderling that he had been running into the form he has shown in the past on the American hard-court surfaces which he regards as his best. He served well, reaped a regular reward on Roddick's backhand and, crucially, began to read the American's serve. The Scot broke at 6-5, Roddick netting a forehand at 15-40, and went on to take the first set with a fine forehand cross-court winner.
At 2-2 the second set developed into a thriller. Murray broke serve when he fired a backhand at Roddick's feet, but the American broke back by winning the next game to love. At 4-4 Murray led 40-0 on Roddick's serve, only for the former US Open champion to win the next five points. Murray held his serve in the next game and broke Roddick for the third time to lead 6-5, a glorious passing shot typifying his bold play.
Serving for a place in the final, Murray double-faulted on his first match point. Roddick fought back to earn a break point, which Murray saved with a brave volley. The next two exchanges secured victory, Roddick hitting a forehand long on Murray's second match point.
"I felt like I read his serve pretty well, and he has obviously got one of the best serves," Murray said. "I don't know that he served his best. But I returned pretty well, and I felt like I put a bit of pressure on his service games because I made so many returns."
Roddick agreed. "He returned well. I hit a bomb at my spot and he'd block it back and I'd be back to neutral again," he said. "I know he can play and he had nothing to lose. He served real well and that got him out of trouble a lot."
After his extraordinary first year on the senior circuit it had seemed that Murray's progress might be slowing down as he won only two of his first six matches in 2006. However, the draws were not always kind to him and he has proved in the last week that he can build on the promise he showed during last year's grass-court season and his appearance in his first ATP final, when he lost to Roger Federer in Bangkok in October.
In beating Roddick, Murray became the youngest player to reach the tournament's final since 1988, when 16-year-old Michael Chang won the title in San Francisco.
Murray's display managed to eclipse another remarkable performance by McEnroe, who in his first doubles tournament for 12 years reached the final by partnering Jonas Bjorkman to a 6-3, 4-6, 10-8 victory over the fourth seeds, Robert Lindstedt and Jaroslav Levinsky. They were due to face Paul Goldstein and Jim Thomas in last night's final.
From Queen's Club to San Jose: Murray's record against players in world's top 20
* JUNE 2005 Queen's
Announced his arrival on senior stage by beating Taylor Dent in second round at Queen's before losing a cliff-hanger against world No 20 Thomas Johansson. Within two points of victory when he fell and hurt his ankle, eventually losing 6-7, 7-6, 5-7.
* JUNE 2005 Wimbledon
Began his senior Grand Slam career in style, following up first-round victory over Georg Bastl with 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 defeat of Czech Republic's Radek Stepanek (world No 13). Lost in third round against David Nalbandian (world No 19), 7-6, 6-1, 6-7, 4-6, 1-6.
* AUG 2005 Cincinnati
Marked Masters Series debut with another defeat of Dent before losing to world No 4 Marat Safin 4-6, 6-1, 4-6 in round two.
* SEPT 2005 Bangkok
Lost 3-6, 5-7 to world No 1 Roger Federer in first ATP final after beating home hero Paradorn Srichaphan in s-f.
* OCT 2005 Basle
Unable to sustain spirited comeback in final set as he lost 4-6, 6-3, 1-6 to Chile's Fernando Gonzalez (world No 17) in quarter-finals.
* JAN 2006 Zagreb
Lost 6-4, 2-6, 3-6 to world No 5 and local favourite Ivan Ljubicic in first round. The Croatian went on to win the tournament.
* FEB 2006 San Jose
Beat world No 3 and top seed Andy Roddick 7-5, 7-5 in semi-finals. Beat the world No 11 Lleyton Hewitt 2-6, 6-1, 7-6 in the final.
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