It has been the greatest year of Andy Murray’s life but it will not end in a glorious finale.
Ever since he added the US Open title to his Olympic gold medal Murray had set his sights on finishing the season with another victory on home soil here at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, but Roger Federer brought a premature end to his campaign in last night’s semi-finals. The 31-year-old Swiss outplayed Murray to win 7-6, 6-2 and earn a place in tonight’s final against Novak Djokovic, who beat Juan Martin del Potro 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.
The greatest player in the game’s history has been a central figure on Murray’s stage this year, having reduced him to tears at the Wimbledon final before the Scot earned his revenge in the gold-medal match at the Olympics. Federer’s defeat by Juan Martin del Potro in a round-robin match on Saturday – his first loss in this tournament since 2009 – had raised hopes that Murray might become the first Briton ever to reach the final of the year-ending tournament, but the world No 3 was unable to sustain the levels of performance that have brought him such success this year.
There were still plenty of moments of Murray magic – crashing forehand return winners, thunderbolt first serves and wicked slices – but there were also more mistakes than the world No 3 would expect to make when at his best. Federer, who improved after a shaky start to play some splendid attacking tennis, was particularly dangerous on Murray’s second serve, driving the Scot back and playing chip-and-charge to devastating effect in the latter stages.
Federer, who is aiming to win this title for the seventh time, may have lost the world No 1 ranking to Djokovic last week, but on an indoor court in particular he remains the man to beat. His enduring popularity was emphasised by the fact that he appeared to have just as many supporters in the capacity 17,800 crowd as the home favourite.
Murray said he was disappointed to have played poorly at crucial stages but described his year as a whole as “incredibly positive”. He added: “Obviously I would have liked to have finished with a win. That didn’t happen, but it’s been the best year of my career by a mile. To look back on that negatively now would be silly because I’ve achieved things I’ve never achieved before.”
The Scot, who was aiming to become only the third man (after Djokovic and Rafael Nadal) to beat Federer three times or more in two seasons, could hardly have wished for a better start as the Swiss dropped serve after netting three forehands in the opening game. Murray went 4-2 up, but from that moment onwards Federer took charge. Murray played a loose game to allow the world No 2 to level at 4-4 and the set eventually slipped from his grasp. When he served at 4-5 in the tie-break Murray put a forehand in the net, upon which he smacked his racket on the floor in frustration. It was not the best moment to have to change rackets and on the next two points he put backhands in the net.
The first set had taken more than an hour, but the second flew by as quickly as a Federer forehand. Making a succession of errors, Murray dropped his serve from 40-0 up in the third game and was broken again in the seventh, Federer completing the job with a majestic backhand cross-court winner. Five points later the Swiss had booked his place in the final, converting his first match point with a forehand winner down the line.
Djokovic, who presented chocolates to the media in his post-match press conference to thank journalists “for your co-operation throughout the whole year”, expects a close match in the final. “Knowing it’s the last match of the season, I’m really going to try to give my best physically and mentally,” he said.
If the Serb was a boxer you would never rule him out of a fight, no matter how many times he had been flat on the canvas. Djokovic has become a master at picking himself up off the floor to deliver knock-out blows and did it again to beat Del Potro, who at 6ft 6in and more than 15 stone is one of the game’s heavyweights.
Djokovic, who has been weighed down by concerns over his sick father, has not been at his best all week, but has always found a way to win.
Del Potro, who had earned his place in the semi-finals by beating Federer for the second time in a fortnight in his final group match, dominated the first hour with his big serve and bludgeoning forehand. He was a set and a break up but appeared to run out of steam as Djokovic rediscovered his rhythm and won 11 of the last 14 games.