THE finishing line came early for Andy Murray.
It took him just 33 minutes to achieve his primary destination of the last four of the Barclays ATP World Tour finals at the O2 Arena last night. It was a sort of London rush half-hour. The 25-year-old Scot, too, was somewhat oblivious to the realisation that taking the first set against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was enough to advance to the semi-finals after a raft of permutations was sunk by Novak Djokovic's straight-sets victory over Tomas Berdych in the earlier Group A match.
This goal was achieved in unseemly haste but Murray said: "I asked the umpire at the change of ends after the first set whether I was through or not. He said I was."
Loading article content
He took a further hour to win the match 6-2, 7-6 (7/3) with a display of such naked aggression that it visibly stunned the 27-year-old Frenchman, who never recovered from early losses on serve, though he valiantly tried to deny an imperious Murray in the second set
The format of this tournament makes it a dangerous business to predict who Murray will face in the last four but if Roger Federer takes even one set from Juan Martin Del Potro this afternoon then the Scot will play the 17-grand slam finalist and defending champion.
The basis of Murray's victory was built on the solid foundations of a strong serve, a defined strategy and by the confusion both engendered in Tsonga. He was French toast and it was served in the opening minutes.
The Scot raced to a 4-0 lead in barely a quarter of an hour, forcing two breaks of serve and closing out the set at the third opportunity when serving at 5-2. He immediately broke in the second set but, this being Oor Andy and nothing therefore being as banal as straightforward, Tsonga broke back and even had a set point. Murray saved this, presumably deciding that French impertinence could only be taken so far.
The tie-break was taken comfortably by Murray who flexed his tennis muscles in a display of Caledonian belligerence that overwhelmed Tsonga.
The seventh seed has been beaten now on six consecutive occasions by the world No.3 and Tsonga must believe his only victory against the Scot – at the Australian Open of 2008 – may stand in solitude for some time.
Murray simply nullifies Tsonga's big serve with his outstanding returns and when the rally develops, the Scot plays on his opponent's backhand with a repetition that is wearying for the Frenchman. The Scot's slice, too, brought the Frenchman to his knees.
Tsonga was therefore left with a booming forehand that was used in desperation, thus regularly not finding its range. Murray, with one lapse when he had a poor service game and was broken in the second set, played with a power and precision that separates the top three players from the pack.
The Scot has endured tough times at the O2 arena, pulling out through injury last year and in 2009 he won two group matches but failed to qualify after the arithmetic favoured Del Potro.
The Dunblane player was therefore delighted with the victory and consequent semi-final place. "I was lucky to get off to a good start and there was some good tennis at the end of the second set as Jo started playing better. When he was imposing himself as he was in that second set, he is a hell of an athlete and very tough to play."
Murray is joined in the knockout stages from group A by Djokovic, who earlier defeated Berdych in straight sets. The world No.1 emerged as the winner of the group with three straight victories and said reports of his father's improving health had helped him concentrate on court.
His father, Srdjan, is in a private clinic in Munich after taking seriously ill with a blood disorder in his lungs and spine and an acute respiratory condition.
Djokovic said the "good news" about his father's recovery "makes me happier, makes me play more relaxed on the court".
He added: "I switch off on the tennis court. I try to think only about the match. And it's been working well so far. Every win means a lot for my family and me. But there are more important things in life, and that's health. I guess that's the priority now."
He is certainly becoming stronger as the tournament progresses after looking fragile when arriving in London after losing in Paris to Sam Querrey.
Group B matches are played today with Federer through but not yet as winner of the section with Del Potro and David Ferrer fighting for the other last-four place.
Federer, six-time winner of the tournament, has been in imperious form, with Murray describing him as the best indoor player in the world over the past two seasons.
Djokovic agrees the Swiss player is the favourite to win the £1m-plus prize again. "He's been playing really well. He hasn't dropped a set. Roger always plays consistently well, especially in big tournaments," said the Serb.
However, Murray was both quick and sure last night. He will await his semi-final opponent with interest but without apprehension.