There is a neat symmetry about this year's Tennis Masters Cup. The elite eight-man field comprises four newcomers and four more experienced hands, divided evenly into two round-robin groups.
The balance, however, ends there and it could prove to be to Andy Murray's misfortune that he has been drawn in the tougher of the two sections. This year's "group of death" at the end-of-season showpiece comprises Roger Federer and Andy Roddick, two of the game's most experienced players, and two debutants in Murray and France's Gilles Simon. They play their first matches in the splendid Qi Zhong Stadium here today.
"It's tough," Murray said. "All the matches are going to be difficult. Obviously I've been drawn in Federer's group, Roddick's got a lot of experience at the Masters Cup and Simon's played great towards the end of the year. I'll just try and play my best. If I do that, I'll be happy."
Murray's first assignment is against Roddick, who is one of only two players in the field who have topped the world rankings. The other is the current No 2, Federer, who kicks off his campaign to win the title for the fifth time in six years against Simon.
Federer is the clear favourite to top the table, but the Swiss has lost his last match against all three of his opponents. Murray, in contrast, beat all three of his rivals last time out and boasts a winning overall record against each of them. His straight-sets victory over Roddick at Wimbledon two years ago announced his arrival as a major player and he has lost only two of six encounters with the American.
"Each time I've played him the matches have been tight," Murray said. "There have been lots of close sets and a few points here or there changing the outcome. Obviously most matches against him are going to be tight because he serves so well. It's so difficult to break him. I'll just have to make sure that I return well and serve well. Hopefully the rest of my game would get me through if I do those two things well."
Not much has gone wrong for Murray in the last four months. He has won more ranking points than anyone in that period, reached his first Grand Slam final and won three titles, including two in the Masters Series. He has lost just four of his last 32 matches.
Roddick believes Murray's five-set victory over Richard Gasquet at Wimbledon this summer was the key to the 21-year-old Scot's breakthrough.
"We always knew Andy was going to be a player," Roddick said. "Maybe he just needed to get over that little bit of a hump at Wimbledon and break through by getting to the quarters. There's no more pressure for him than playing that tournament. To have played pretty well and to have come back in that match against Richard was maybe a huge turning point in his year. As far as forehands and backhands and tennis IQ are concerned, he's up there with anybody."
He added: "Learning how to manage a five-set match is also big. I remember from early in my career that you get so over-excited that by the fourth set your nerves have taken so much out of you that you're struggling a little bit. If he's having a tough match he's probably learned how to weather the ups and downs of a situation like that. There's no question that his movement has been great and he certainly has the staff around to make sure that he's in a good physical condition."
In yesterday's first matches in the other group it was the men of experience who came out on top, Novak Djokovic beating Juan Martin del Potro 7-5, 6-3 and Nikolay Davydenko overcoming Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-7, 6-4, 7-6.
Nevertheless Murray believes the progress of the younger generation is inevitable. "I think tennis has got much stronger in the last couple of years," he said. "There are a lot of young guys coming through. There are a few who just missed out as well – Gasquet, Baghdatis has been badly injured, Monfils as well.
"There are a lot of good young players, which I think is exciting. Del Potro played unbelievably after Wimbledon and up until the US Open. Tsonga had a great Australian Open and finished the year really well and had a bad injury in between. We've all had very good years and it'll be interesting to see next year how everyone improves, how well we can challenge for the bigger tournaments."Reuse content