Three months after he hardly dared to pick up a racket, Andy Murray collected the biggest pay cheque of his career yesterday. The 20-year-old Scot, who missed two of the summer's Grand Slam tournaments with a serious wrist injury, won $142,000 (£69,000) by beating Spain's Fernando Verdasco 6-2, 6-3 in the final of the St Petersburg Open.
Murray now heads here for the Paris Masters, where a good performance could earn him a place in the prestigious – not to mention lucrative – season-ending Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai in 13 days' time. It is a remarkable turnaround in the British No 1's fortunes since it was only at the US Open two months ago that he started hitting the ball again with any real freedom after damaging tendons in his racket wrist in May.
"It would be a ridiculous effort to make Shanghai after what happened to me," Murray said last night. "A wrist injury, as every tennis player knows, takes a long time to come back from. If I was to make Shanghai after what I went through in the middle of the year it would be an unbelievable effort. I'm going to give it my best shot."
The third title of Murray's career, following his 2006 and 2007 victories in San Jose, was secured in convincing fashion. He broke serve in the third and seventh games and took the first set in 32 minutes on his third set point. Murray broke again in the opening game of the second set and won when 23-year-old Verdasco, the world No 30, netted a forehand after just an hour and 17 minutes.
The Spaniard forced only one break point, which Murray saved in the fourth game of the second set. It was a noticeably quicker victory than the Scot's three-set wins in the previous two rounds against Dmitry Tursunov and Mikhail Youzhny, who had two match points in their semi-final. "The final was pretty comfortable," Murray said. "He made a lot of mistakes and I just kept a good length and didn't make too many mistakes."
Murray's previous biggest pay cheques were $100,000 (£49,000) for winning the Turbo Tennis exhibition event in London in September and £47,250 for reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon last year.
Earlier this month he had all but written off his chances of qualifying for the round-robin Tennis Masters Cup, which brings together the year's most successful eight players and has prize-money totalling $3.7m (£1.8m). Yesterday's victory, however, puts him among the leading contenders to win one of the two remaining places. Fernando Gonzalez should take the seventh slot, but only 14 points separate the next eight players in the table.
The Paris Masters is the last qualifying tournament for the season's grand finale. Winning here is Murray's only guarantee of booking his place in Shanghai, but much will depend on the performances of other contenders. In theory he could still earn a place by losing in the third round.
Murray said it felt "pretty special" to be so close to qualifying. "It gives you a reason to get fired up for your match because you're playing for something that hardly anybody else can say that they've done," he said.
"There are very few players in any sport who can say they're in the top eight players in the world. The rankings don't lie. If you're there you're clearly one of the best players in the world. It's the only tournament where you get to see the top eight playing against each other three times in a row with someone coming out on top. So few people can say that they've made Shanghai, which is why it's special."
Murray is seeded No 15 here and has a bye into the second round, in which he meets either Jarkko Nieminen or Juan Monaco. Novak Djokovic, the world No 3, is his likely third-round opponent, followed by James Blake or Richard Gasquet in the quarter-finals and Roger Federer in the semi-finals.
Blake and Gasquet are fellow contenders for Shanghai and could be bigger threats than Djokovic and Federer, who have both qualified for the Tennis Masters Cup and might have limited motivation here. Djokovic, who has won all three of his matches against Murray, has had a gruelling year.
Federer, meanwhile, has reached the finals of back-to-back tournaments and by winning his home-town event in Basle yesterday, when he beat Nieminen 6-3, 6-4 in the final, confirmed that he will end the season as world No 1 for the fourth year in succession. Federer pulled out of the Paris Masters in similar circumstances 12 months ago.
Nineteen of the world's top 20 are in the Paris draw – Andy Roddick, who has an injured heel, is the only absentee –but form often goes out of the window at this stage of the year. Gonzalez has not won a match in five appearances here.
The race to reach Shanghai
* The top eight players in the ATP 2007 Race qualify to play in the season's finale, the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai from 11-18 November. The Race awards points for results throughout the year, with this week's Paris Masters being the final qualifying event. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Nikolay Davydenko, Andy Roddick and David Ferrer have already booked their places in Shanghai. Nineteen other players are theoretically still in contention for the two remaining spots, but realistically the contest is between the players lying between seventh and 15th.
* Current standings
1 Roger Federer 1,291pts
2 Rafael Nadal 1,037
3 Novak Djokovic 893
4 Nikolay Davydenko 530
5 Andy Roddick 466
6 David Ferrer 425
7 Fernando Gonzalez 380
8 Tommy Haas 329
9 Tommy Robredo 328
10 James Blake 327
11 Andy Murray 326
12 Tomas Berdych 322
13 Richard Gasquet 321
14 Carlos Moya 316
15 Ivan Ljubicic 315
Paris winner: 100pts; finalist 70; semi-finalist 45; quarter-finalist 25; 3rd round 15; 2nd 7; 1st 1.