Federer-Murray:  Inhabiting a netherworld between majors and Masters events, which type of tournament does the year-end championships resemble?  Unable to win a set from Federer in their two Slam finals, Murray has accumulated a 5-1 record against the Swiss superstar at Masters tournaments.  Fittingly, they have split their two prior meetings at this event, neither of which showcased especially scintillating tennis. Last year in the O2 Arena, Great Britain’s home hope lulled Federer into tepid errors during the first set before he vanished puzzlingly in the last two sets.  This match almost certainly determines the winner and runner-up of Group B, for both players will fancy their chances against Soderling and Ferrer on Friday.  Recording similarly routine victories in their London openers, Federer and Murray benefited from the ineptitude of their opponents, but they adjusted adeptly to the surface after the far faster court in Paris.  Content to play defensively against an erratic Soderling, the Scot will need to emerge from his comfort zone more often in order to overcome an adversary whose groundstrokes looked (mostly) as crisp and stylish as his outfit.  A departure from the usual tone of this rivalry, none of their three meetings this year have proved highly competitive.  Together with Berdych, Murray remains the only player to score multiple victories over Federer this year, winning his two Masters 1000 titles at the expense of the Swiss.  Thoroughly outmaneuvered in the Shanghai final, the world #2 otherwise has enjoyed a reassuring fall campaign that should inspire him with much-needed confidence for 2011.  Having compiled a 9-3 record against top-10 players since Wimbledon, Federer would relish the opportunity to conquer the man responsible for two of those three losses.  For Murray, meanwhile, the opportunity to shine before his champion-starved compatriots beckons.  Beyond these intriguing narratives, Wednesday’s encounter might well offer a rehearsal for Sunday’s final.

Soderling-Ferrer:  Already in deep peril, the Swede and the Spaniard both face a virtual must-win situation in order to preserve their hopes into the final round-robin stage.  As in the afternoon encounter, one can glean ample evidence from their previous meetings, of which no fewer than five occurred this year.  Contrary to expectations, Ferrer won two of their three hard-court meetings during the second half, although one of those occurred on the ultra-slow hard courts of his home tournament in Valencia.  Even on the lawns of Wimbledon, however, the Spaniard sorely tested Soderling’s patience throughout five contentious sets. Neither player has anything significant to prove this week and must realize their extremely slim chances of advancing to the semifinals, which almost certainly would require a Soderling win over Federer or a Ferrer win over Murray.  In fact, they are effectively playing for prize money and points, a situation that rarely produce the most sparkling tennis.  Basking in the glow of his first Masters 1000 title like an alligator in a bayou, the new (and probably soon former) world #4 surfaced from his complacency only sporadically against Murray.  Comprehensively outgunned by Federer, Ferrer failed to punish the Swiss legend for a pedestrian first-serve percentage and displayed body language more muted than his customary grunting, fist-pumping vigor.  While the Spaniard has enjoyed a characteristically sturdy fall, he didn’t dazzle at either of the key events in Shanghai and Paris.  On the other hand, Soderling did.

***

We return tomorrow to discuss Berdych-Roddick and Nadal-Djokovic.  The drama may have declined in Group B, but Group A looks likely to remain tightly contested until the last ball struck on Friday.

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