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Murray lets Federer win... first set

Briton's latest victory shows he is the man in form for the Australian Open

Andy Murray swept aside any doubts as to who will start the Australian Open as the world’s most in-form player when he beat Roger Federer in the semi-finals of the Qatar Open in Doha yesterday. Murray, who won 6-7, 6-2, 6-2, is due to face Andy Roddick in today’s final, though a stiff back could force the 21-year-old Scot to withdraw, particularly with the season’s first Grand Slam event only nine days away.

Murray, who is defending the first of the five titles he won last year, needed treatment on court, having been troubled by a sore back since playing in an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi last week. “I don’t know whether it has something to do with the nature of the court, rather than the weather,” he said afterwards. “If my back is going to be like this I won’t play tomorrow. It was getting stiff as the match progressed.”

In his current form injury appears the only threat to Murray’s progress. Picking up where he left off at the end of last year, the world No 4 beat Federer and Rafael Nadal, the world’s top two players, on his way to victory in Abu Dhabi and has now underlined his hold over the opponent he considers one of the greatest of all time.

Poor Federer must be sick of the sight of him. Since the Swiss beat him in the US Open final in September they have met three times in competitive matches and Murray has won on each occasion. He has won five of their last six matches.

This was the only competitive tournament both men will play before the Australian Open and Murray will head for Melbourne knowing he is in better form than all three players above him in the rankings. Earlier this week Nadal, the world No 1, was beaten by Gaël Monfils in Doha, while Novak Djokovic, the No 3, lost to Ernests Gulbis in Brisbane.

Although he needed three sets and more than two hours to beat Federer, this was an emphatic victory for Murray, who said it was “a great feeling” to beat the five-times Wimbledon champion again. Murray did not lose his serve once, had only three break points against him and dropped just eight out of 65 points on first serve.

There were no breaks in the first set and indeed only one break point, which Federer saved with a thumping forehand winner. The former world No 1 took the tie-break 8-6, but only after saving a set point at 5-6 with a smart backhand volley.

From 2-2 in the second set Murray took charge and lost only two more games. The British No 1 hit a barrage of winners from all parts of the court and maintained his domination even after calling for the trainer to have his back massaged at 2-1 in the decider. Federer faded quickly and the match ended when he put a routine overhead into the net.

“I didn’t play my best,” Federer said afterwards. “I really struggled in the second. He’s a good player. He has a good chance to win a Grand Slam. He’s becoming a better player.”

In the other semi-final Roddick beat Monfils 7-6, 3-6, 6-3. Monfils also appeared to have a back problem and could not rediscover his brilliant form of the previous day, when he had beaten Nadal.

Roddick, 26, is No 8 in the world rankings but has won only one title in the last 11 months. Murray has won five of their seven meetings, the most recent over three sets at the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai two months ago.

Anne Keothavong, Britain’s other No 1, went down fighting in an attempt to reach her first final on the main women’s tour. Elena Vesnina won their Auckland Classic semi-final in New Zealand 6-7, 6-1, 7-5 after a match lasting nearly three hours. Already at a career-high No 60 in the world rankings, Keothavong will make further progress in next week’s updated list.

The 25-year-old from Hackney, who came back from 5-3 down to take the first set, saved four match points when Vesnina served at 6-5 in the decider and then had two break points of her own, but the Russian held on and eventually won the match with an ace. In the other semi-final Vesnina’s doubles partner, Elena Dementieva, needed just over an hour to beat Aravane Rezai 6-2, 6-2.