For two games he looked as nervous as a turkey at a Christmas Eve party but Andy Murray quickly came good here last night to book his place in tomorrow's semi-finals at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals.
The 23-year-old Scot's second win of the week, a resounding 6-2, 6-2 victory over Spain's David Ferrer, took him through to the last four along with the group winner, Roger Federer, who beat Robin Soderling 7-6, 6-3 to preserve his record of not dropping a set in the round-robin phase.
Murray will now play the winner of the other four-man section, in which the final matches are played today. Rafael Nadal, who meets Tomas Berdych this afternoon, is in pole position to top the group, but any two of the four players – Novak Djokovic faces Andy Roddick in the other match – could yet claim the last two semi-final slots.
Although Murray eventually completed his victory in just 69 minutes, another packed crowd in the 17,500-capacity arena might have feared the worst as he made a tentative start. Whether or not he was still feeling chastened by his emphatic defeat at the hands of Federer 48 hours earlier, the world No 5 hit the ball with little conviction and moved as if he had lead weights in his shoes. Ferrer broke to take a 2-0 lead as Murray made three errors on his backhand, which is usually his most reliable shot.
No sooner had the storm clouds appeared, however, than Murray blew them away. In the next game two big backhands helped create three break points, the last of which he converted with a crunching backhand winner down the line. All the confidence he had shown in his opening victory over Soderling seemed to flood back as Murray won the next seven games in a row.
Federer's victory earlier in the day meant that Murray needed to win only one set or a maximum of eight games to qualify. Within 31 minutes the former was in the bag. Ferrer rallied briefly at the start of the second set, but Murray won five straight games to round off his victory.
The Scot admitted afterwards that he had he felt a little nervous at the start. "I knew before I went out there that I had to win one set while David had to win the match comfortably, so it was quite a strange position to be in," he said.
Murray said he would like to play Nadal next, but in looking ahead to a possible meeting with the world No 1 he appeared irked by the criticism of his performance against Federer. "I'll try and win, but I'm not sure I've got a whole lot of chance if I play against him," he said. "I don't seem to beat those guys in the big matches."
The Scot presumably had his tongue in his cheek. When asked whether he thought he was a better player than 12 months ago, he replied: "After the last match you would probably say no. That's what everyone was saying, that I wasn't playing particularly well."
Murray is now certain to overhaul Soderling in the year-end world rankings, the Swede having taken his No 4 position earlier this month. Should Murray win the tournament here he could also climb above Djokovic to reclaim the No 3 position.
If Federer wins the $1.63m (about £1m) first prize he will join Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras as the only players to have won the tournament five times. In nine consecutive appearances at these year-end championships he has failed to make the last four only once.
* Serena Williams, who has not played since Wimbledon because of a foot injury, has further delayed her return by pulling out of next year's Australian Open.