Andy Murray is often at his most dangerous when returning to competition after a break. The 22-year-old Scot has won eight of his 13 titles in such circumstances and will attempt to extend that record today when he meets Mikhail Youzhny in the final of the Valencia Open.
Having been out for six weeks with an injury to his left wrist, Murray built on his impressive return last night with a 6-3 2-6 6-3 semi-final victory over Fernando Verdasco. It was a particularly creditable performance given that Verdasco, the world No 8, was in front of a home crowd and is still chasing one of the last two places in the eight-man field for the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals at the O2 Arena in London in a fortnight's time.
Murray had lost only one of his previous seven matches against Verdasco, though the 25-year-old Spaniard won when they met in the Australian Open this year. A big hitter with a huge forehand, Verdasco took the game to Murray, only to be frustrated by the Scot's great athleticism and ability to make his opponent hit the extra shot.
Attacking the ball with his usual panache, Verdasco dominated the opening exchanges, dropping just two points in his first three service games. Murray, in contrast, had had to save three break points to keep the scores level, but at 3-3 the Scot turned the match on its head. Murray suddenly upped his tempo, broke Verdasco to love twice in a row and won 15 out of 16 points to take the set in some style.
Verdasco made two early breaks to take the second set but Murray always looked in control of the decider. Having saved four break points in the fourth game, Verdasco made a mess of the sixth, handing Murray the vital breakthrough with loose shots.
Although he looked tired by the end, Murray should fancy his chances of claiming his sixth title of the season. He has won 62 matches this year, a total bettered only by Novak Djokovic. Youzhny lost their only previous meeting, in St Petersburg two years ago, though the world No 23 found good form yesterday to beat his fellow Russian, Nikolay Davydenko, 3-6 6-4 6-3.
The last chance to reach the season-ending finale in London comes at this week's Paris Masters, which brings together all the world's top players – with the exception of the injured Andy Roddick – for the first time since the US Open. Murray has a first-round bye, after which he will play James Blake or Fabrice Santoro. Radek Stepanek could await in the third round, Juan Martin del Potro in the quarter-finals and Roger Federer in the semi-finals. Rafael Nadal and Djokovic, who meets Federer today in the final of the world No 1's home tournament in Basel, are in the other half of the draw.
Next month Murray will head for Florida, where he will be joined by his brother Jamie and Ross Hutchins, Britain's leading doubles player, at a training camp in preparation for next season. In recent years he has returned to Scotland for Christmas, played in the Qatar Open in the first week of January and headed Down Under in the week before the Australian Open.
This year, he will not return home but go straight from Florida to Perth, where he will partner Laura Robson in the Hopman Cup, a round-robin exhibition event that will guarantee him at least three singles matches as well as three mixed doubles. He will then head for Melbourne, but may go via Sydney to play in the week immediately before the Australian Open.