The rivalry with Roger Federer which helped to propel Andy Murray into his greatest summer will resume here today when they face each other for the first time since their gold-medal match at the Olympic Games. The Swiss and the Scot meet in the semi-finals of the Shanghai Masters, where Murray has yet to lose a match, having won the tournament in his two previous appearances.
Murray, who reached the semi- finals by beating Radek Stepanek 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 yesterday, has won nine of his 17 matches against Federer, but it was his battling defeat to the world No 1 in this year's Wimbledon final that proved to be the launchpad for the Scot's triumphs at both the Olympics and US Open.
Federer, who beat Marin Cilic 6-3, 6-4 in his quarter-final, often brings the best out of Murray, who relishes the challenge of taking on the greatest player in the sport's history. Murray won both their previous meetings here at the Qi Zhong Tennis Centre.
"To win the match you need to play great tennis," Murray said as he looked forward to meeting Federer for the fourth time this year. "It's a challenge playing against him because he has a lot of variety in his game. He can win points from a lot of different parts of the court.
"Each time you play against him, there's things that happen a lot differently compared with the previous time, so you need to make sure that you're on your toes and you're ready to make some adjustments during the match. You need to think while you're out there against him."
Federer believes the key to Murray's breakthrough has been his more aggressive approach and not staying so far back for his returns, particularly on second serves.
"He kind of always gave you the first hit [in the past]," Federer said. "By virtue of returning further in, it takes time away. He's got great hands, great anticipation, great reaction. I guess it's the right way to play. It's paid off. Now he's obviously in his absolute prime. Hit fitness, his mind, his game is all coming together now."
Novak Djokovic, a 6-3, 6-3 winner over Tommy Haas, and Tomas Berdych, who beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-3, 7-6, meet in the other semi-final, meaning that the top four seeds are all through to the final stages.
In truth Murray was well below his best for most of his quarter-final. The world No 3 has not been in the best of health since picking up a bronchial infection on his way to Asia a fortnight ago and often looked short on energy.
Stepanek, who at 33 remains one of the fittest players on the tour, struck the ball well in the first set, in which he dropped only five points on his serve and made the only break in the fifth game. It took Murray an hour to get to deuce in any of the Czech's service games, but from 2-2 in the second set he won four games in a row to level the match.
After an early exchange of breaks in the decider, Murray finally came good. Having played cautiously until that point, the US Open champion belatedly started going for his shots and secured victory by winning 20 of the last 25 points.
"I got my kick of energy at the end of the match and played really well for 15 minutes, but I didn't play particularly well up until that point and I was pretty sluggish at the beginning in terms of my movement," Murray said.
At the end of the match Murray wrote a "happy birthday" message to his girlfriend, Kim Sears, on the television camera lens. "I didn't tell her I was going to write that," he said. "I hadn't really thought about it until I finished the match." Had he wanted to win the match for her? "I guess so, yeah," Murray smiled.
Colin Fleming and Ross Hutchins reached their first Masters Series semi-final when they beat Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi and Jean-Julien Rojer 7-6, 4-6, 12-10. The Britons, who next play Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna, can still play in the end-of-year Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. Eight doubles teams qualify for London based on their 2012 performances and Fleming and Hutchins are currently 11th on the list. Britain's Jonny Marray and Denmark's Frederik Nielsen, the Wimbledon champions, should also make the field.