On Friday, in two excellent sets in Dubai, he blitzed the unblitzable Novak Djokovic, his conqueror in a titanic semi-final in Australia only a couple of months ago. No early-season blues, then, for Murray in 2012, which may turn out to be his breakthrough year.
He has a new coach in Ivan Lendl, and a new attitude. The Sultan of Sulk was nowhere to be seen in the desert on Friday. In Saturday’s final, he meets Roger Federer, who needed two tie-breaks to beat a resurgent Juan Martín del Potro. Murray’s was some win, albeit over the shorter distance, 6-2, 7-5. He achieved it largely through a souped-up serve – fast, varied and with great control – against probably the best defensive player in the world. Making full use of a super-fast surface, Murray banged in five aces and got a stunning 71% of first serves in, winning 85% of the points on them.
That is irresistible service power and efficiency. What does it mean for Murray and for tennis? Quite a lot. To see Djokovic, the cool new monster of the circuit, who won 41 matches in a row last year, hitting the barrier at 10 in March was a shock, no question. The Serb cloaked himself in a near-impenetrable aura in 2011 that brought him three of the slam titles and had Rafael Nadal and Federer trailing in his wake, with Murray a bystander. Djokovic was particularly cruel on Nadal, whipping him in seven finals, three of them in those major triumphs. Only Federer resisted in the tournaments that mattered, winning in a classic semi-final in Paris but blowing two match points at the same stage at Flushing Meadows. Now there is heightened interest in what lies ahead, and Murray has put himself at the centre of the rivalry. He now has seven wins over reigning world No1 players: three against Nadal, two against Federer and two against Djokovic.
Djokovic will regroup quickly enough. Murray? He has never won this title and he will be in a happy frame of mind when he consults on the phone with Lendl. A win in the final on Saturday would have both of them positively beaming. Lendl, back on court himself last week to reach the final of a champions tour tournament at Delray Beach, will hook up with Murray again in Monte Carlo to prepare for the French Open. Djokovic started ominously, holding to love twice with recourse to a second serve only once in his first eight, but, once Murray settled into a rhythm, he ignored the niggle in his right knee that had troubled him in his match against Tomas Berdych and wore down the world No1 in the first shock of the season. It was idling nicely until Murray seized on uncharacteristic hesitancy to blow Djokovic off court at the end of the first set. But the real drama arrived at the finish. Djokovic, a set down and struggling with his own game as well as the force of Murray’s, stormed back to 5-5 from 4-1 down in the second after Murray had the match in his kitbag, and that is when it all came together for the world No4. He held for 6-5 and immediately got back in a rhythm to break the Serb and reach the final. He showed impressive nerve when some might have doubted him.
Wins like this – his fifth in 12 against Djokovic – are the early-season tonic Murray needs to convince himself he is still in touch with the leading trio. Certainly, he has hunted down Federer in the past, even though the Swiss overtook him in the rankings at the end of last year. Nadal is the opponent he enjoys playing more than all the others. And now Djokovic is another notch on his racket. They have always respected Murray, because they recognise his potential to play so well from time to time. If he can hit a vein of form, if he can get that first grand slam title, they will genuinely fear him. He deserves it. Not many have worked harder at their game than the enigmatic Scot. – guardian