Andy Murray - 2011 Shanghai Rolex Masters - Day 6

Overshadowed by plotlines like the ascendancy of Djokovic and the decline of Federer is the singular season of contradictions alternately enjoyed and suffered by Andy Murray.   Sometimes heroic and sometimes humiliated, Murray reached semifinals at all of the year’s last three majors consecutively for the first time in his career—yet fell more or less routinely to the same player at all of them.  The Scot inflicted one of the only two blemishes on Djokovic’s 2011 record—yet absorbed an ignominious annihilation in their most significant meeting, at the Australian Open.  But the starkest and strangest dichotomy of all springs from his record at hard-court Masters 1000 tournaments, which will stand at two titles and three opening-round losses if he wins on Sunday.  The defending champion in Shanghai, Murray seeks to sweep the ATP Asian season with a third consecutive hard-court title in a season during which he lost five consecutive hard-court matches.

Since Madrid eleven tournaments ago, though, the world #4 has lost only one match to an opponent other than Djokovic or Nadal, whose rivalry may now have paused until the Australian Open.  Instead of a top-two opponent, the ambitious David Ferrer now positions himself between Murray and not only an eighth Masters shield but the #3 ranking.  The Scot has won all of their hard-court meetings and thrashed Ferrer comprehensively in a Tokyo semifinal just eight days ago, when he stayed more consistent and intelligent in the extended rallies.  More impressive this week, the third seed has rallied from one-set deficits in three consecutive matches to reach his second Masters 1000 final of the season, so he will not falter mentally under early adversity.  In a statistic from which Isner could take pride, Ferrer has not lost his serve for eight consecutive sets while registering 37 consecutive holds.  In Tokyo, a key reason behind Murray’s dominance lay in the disparity between their serves, an advantage that may not hold on Sunday against the suddenly serve-slashing Spaniard.  On the other hand, the puny returns of Roddick and Lopez often transform average servers into leviathans at the notch.  Also uncharacteristic of the clay-based grinder whom we know as Ferrer was his surprisingly effective movement into the forecourt and generally efficient volleys, although he did miss a key volley when facing set point against Lopez.  Adjusting to the slick DecoTurf surface with creditable aplomb, the world #5 showed that his game may conceal more variety than we associate with it.  This thought begs the question of why Ferrer has settled into a relatively passive playing style, which has crippled him against the ATP elite, but this self-deprecating figure may lack the inner confidence necessary to execute more aggressive tennis under pressure.

Often critiqued for similar reasons, Murray generally has stayed content in Shanghai to unfold his trademark brand of high-percentage, low-risk tennis.  Facing no opponent more notable than Wawrinka, he enjoyed the rare gift of facing two opponents outside the top 30 in the quarterfinal and semifinal of a Masters 1000 event.  Unlike Ferrer, who may arrive a little jaded from three straight three-setters, Murray should bring ample reserves of energy to their clash.  He needed a set to summon the willpower to leave his comfort zone in the Tokyo final against Nadal, and he may need a lesser leap of faith in himself here if Nadal’s compatriot continues to shine even in the traditionally weaker areas of his game.  Far different from their Tokyo meeting was an Australian Open semifinal in which the Spaniard came within a point of a two-set lead over the Scot, trumpeting his danger

Winless in Slam finals and thoroughly feckless on those stages, Murray has compiled quite the opposite sort of record in Masters 1000 finals:  7-1, with his only loss to Nadal.  Determined to attain the #3 ranking this year, he has extracted vital motivation from that mission throughout the last few weeks, when his rivals have not found any such goal to grasp.  The defending champion of Shanghai surpassed Federer on the court in last year’s final and likely will surpass him in the rankings after this year’s final, squeezing all of the juice that he can from the meager fruits of fall.