Perhaps Andy Murray should try taking a break more often. The 21-year-old Scot had played only two matches in the previous five weeks when he arrived here at the Madrid Masters, but yesterday his burgeoning form of the last few days lifted him to a splendid 3-6 6-3 7-5 semi-final victory over Roger Federer. In the second Masters Series final of his career, Murray today faces France's Gilles Simon, who will be playing in his first after shocking the local favourite and world No 1, Rafael Nadal, in a marathon that lasted almost three and a half hours.
Murray's year just gets better and better. In August he won his first Masters Series title, beating Novak Djokovic in Cincinnati, and last month he reached his first Grand Slam final, losing to Federer in straight sets at the US Open after grossly unfair scheduling left the world No 4 with comparatively little time to prepare for the match. Over the last week, feeling refreshed after his mid-season break either side of Britain's Davis Cup tie against Austria, Murray has confirmed his arrival among an elite group of four who are pulling away from the rest. At this rate Djokovic, the world No 3, will soon feel Murray breathing down his neck.
Federer may have slipped from his previous heights, having lost his Wimbledon title and world No 1 ranking to Nadal this summer, but he remains the most prized of scalps. Murray, who has now beaten the Swiss in three of their five meetings, and Nadal are the most notable of a select group of men who have won more matches against him than they have lost.
A full house in the 9,300-capacity Madrid Arena, perhaps hoping for another instalment in the Federer-Nadal saga in today's final, were clearly on the former world No 1's side, though they were always ready to acknowledge Murray's excellence in a high-quality encounter. A seven-piece brass band played at every changeover, adding to the sense of occasion.
The thinner air of the Spanish capital – Madrid is 2,100 feet above sea level – and the lightning-fast courts put a premium on serving. Federer had the better first-serve percentage but hit only half as many aces as Murray, whose total of 14 included a 141mph thunderbolt that was the fastest he has ever struck in competition.
Federer broke serve in the sixth game to take the first set. Murray forced only one break point as the Swiss, who attacks at every opportunity, regularly punished the shorter and softer shots that usually flummox the Scot's opponents. In the second set, however, Murray played with more aggression, breaking serve in the fourth game with a series of fine returns. As Murray upped the pace, hitting some cracking winners, errors increasingly crept into Federer's game.
Federer had only three break points all match (Murray had nine). After the US Open champion had failed to take the last of them in the second game of the deciding set, Murray served out of his skin, winning 11 points in a row on serve. Federer, showing great resilience, saved three break points from 0-40 down at 1-1. When the Swiss took a 4-3 lead, the band broke into "Star Wars", but by the end of the 11th game of the set Federer was probably pondering on the appropriateness of their rendition of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction", Murray having converted his ninth break point thanks to a pummelled backhand down the line.
In the following game Murray's superb inside-out forehand cross-court winner created match point, which was converted when Federer put a backhand in the net. "I served huge," Murray said afterwards. "The second serve was also very good. In comparison to the chances I had on his serve, he had very few chances on mine."
Federer said he could see similarities with his own career in the way that the Scot has matured as a player this year. "I always knew from the first moment I saw him play in Bangkok [three years ago] that he'd be in the top 10 pretty soon, provided he didn't screw things up," Federer said. "I think first he had to grow up a little bit, become a man. He's taken that step well."
Simon continued his remarkable week with a 3-6 7-5 7-6 victory over Nadal, who has been troubled this week by a sore shoulder. The world No 16 had to save four match points against Igor Andreev in the first round and two against Robby Ginepri in the third. All five of his matches here have gone to three sets and four have been decided by tie-breaks. Murray, who is attempting to become the first Briton ever to win four ATP titles in a season, lost to Simon in Rome last year but beat him in Hamburg five months ago.
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