There was no shortage of drama in the most eagerly-awaited clash of the group stages at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals but it was Novak Djokovic who edged out Andy Murray to put himself in the driving seat in Group A.
It was the seventh meeting between the pair this season and their rivalry is fast developing into the headline act on the ATP Tour.
They were tied at three all, with Djokovic winning epic clashes at the Australian Open and in their last meeting in Shanghai a month ago but Murray coming out in top at the Olympics and, most notably, to win his first grand slam title at the US Open.
The Scot could not have started better here and played a near faultless first set but he could not sustain it and in the end a third-set comeback counted for nothing as Djokovic prevailed 4-6 6-3 7-5 in two hours and 34 minutes at London’s O2 Arena.
This clash will not live long in the memory for the quality, first set from Murray aside, but it was somehow inevitable it would go down to the wire.
Assessing his rivalry with the man he first played as a junior more than a decade ago, the 25-year-old said: “I think both of us probably see each other’s games pretty well. Especially this year, because we’ve played so much.
“But the one thing I would say is this year I think both of us probably have seen things in each other’s games improve and that’s why there’s a lot of long rallies and the matches are incredibly tight.”
Murray was blistering in the first set, pushing Djokovic back with the ferocity of his forehand and dropping only three points on serve after breaking in the opening game following the kind of ding-dong rally for which the pair have become famous.
He was still in the ascendancy at the start of the second and had a chance in the third game, only for Djokovic to find the corner with a drive volley.
Three games later the Serb created his first opening and took it when Murray chose to serve and volley and just missed the baseline.
“There are decisions you make in matches,” he said afterwards. “If they come off, you get told you’re a genius. If you miss them, then you’re an idiot. That was just one of those ones that didn’t work today.”
The momentum was with the world No 1 and he looked in total control in the decider when he twice had chances for a double break.
But Murray dug in and pulled back to 4-4 only for Djokovic to break again and then save two more break points to serve it out.
“In about the last two minutes of the match probably is what decided it,” said the Scot. “He broke from 15-40 and then I had 15-40 in the next game and didn’t break.”
Murray’s victory over Berdych on Monday means he still has a good chance of reaching the last four, with his final round-robin match to come against Tsonga tomorrow.
Djokovic was fully prepared for a battle, and he said: “It was another great match, another great performance from both of us. I hope that people who watched it agree with my opinion.
“I didn’t expect anything less other than a tough match that went down the wire and was decided on the last point.
“It was important for me after dropping the first set to stay mentally tough and believe that I can get my opportunities, and when they’re presented to try to step in and use them. That’s what I’ve done.”
In yesterday’s other Group A match Tomas Berdych beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 7-5 3-6 6-1, to keep the pressure on Murray and Djokovic in the fight for semi-final places.
Meanwhile, the dream continued for Wimbledon champions Jonny Marray and Freddie Nielsen as they became the first qualifiers for the semi-finals of the World Tour Finals.
Having stunned the world’s best doubles players to triumph at the All England Club in the summer, Sheffield’s Marray and Nielsen have picked up where they left off and last night defeated defending champions Max Mirnyi and Daniel Nestor 7-6 (7/3) 4-6 12-10 at the O2 Arena.
Belarusian Mirnyi and Canadian Nestor have 19 grand slam doubles titles between them and six World Tour Finals crowns but they came out second best to the debutants.
The result of the afternoon match in Group B meant Marray and Nielsen knew victory last night would assure them of a last-four spot after their opening win over Indian pair Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna on Monday. The Anglo-Danish duo again made a good start, with Nielsen securing a break in the seventh game on a deciding deuce point, but Marray was unable to serve out the set.
They played a great tie-break, though, pulling away after sharing the first four points before Marray served an ace to clinch it.
The second set did not begin so well as a Nielsen double fault gave the champions an immediate advantage, and it was one Marray and Nielsen were unable to claw back.
They won their first match on a deciding tie-break, and that was the scenario again as the O2 crowd lapped up the drama.
It was tight from the start with no more than two points between the pairs all the way through. The first match point went to Marray and Nielsen after the 31-year-old Yorkshireman hit an ace but he then netted the return. The next chance went to Mirnyi and Nestor but this time Nielsen held firm on serve, and when Marray and the Dane had another chance they took it, Nestor volleying fractionally long.
The Barclays ATP World Tour Finals will stay in London for an extra two years until 2015, the ATP announced yesterday.
The prestigious season-ending tournament moved to the O2 Arena in 2009 on a five-year deal and has been a huge success, with more than 750,000 spectators attending over the first three years and unanimous backing from the players.
An extension to the deal has been mooted since last year but has now been signed, and ATP executive chairman and president Brad Drewett said: “We are very happy to announce the extension of our original commitment in London for a further two years.”