Andy Murray is just one win away from becoming the 26th man to rank world no. 1 as he faces Milos Raonic in the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Masters.
Murray vs Raonic BNP Paribas Masters tennis is live from Paris on Saturday at 4.30pm local/3.30pm GMT. Watch and bet on tennis live from Paris at bet365 > live streaming > tennis
Andy Murray must beat Milos Raonic in the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris on Saturday in order to claim the world no. 1 ranking.
After Novak Djokovic’s shock defeat at the hands of Marin Cilic in Friday’s BNP Paribas Masters quarterfinals, only Milos Raonic stands between Andy Murray and the certainty of being ranked world no. 1 when the new rankings are generated on Monday. (And that ‘only’ is not intended to suggest that the Canadian is an insignificant obstacle – but we’ll get to that later.)
Murray would lead Djokovic in Monday’s rankings by only a few points – but a few is all it would take for Murray to become the first British man to head the rankings since they were introduced in 1973. He would be the 26th man to rank as world no. 1, and the second-oldest to ever reach the top spot for the first time after 30-year-old John Newcombe in 1974. He would also set a record for the most time between becoming world no. 2 for the first time – which happened back in 2009 – and world no. 1, which is in itself a testament to the quite extraordinary amount of tenacity and resilience it has required for Murray to put himself in this position, just one win away from the top spot.
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While Murray has undeniably used the quest for the ranking to fuel his late-season surge, which has seen him win 19 matches in a row as he won titles in Beijing, Shanghai and Vienna, even he didn’t expect it so soon. He’s been focusing on finishing the season strongly and putting himself in position to challenge for the top spot early next year. And when he took the court against Tomas Berdych on Friday, knowing that Djokovic had just shockingly lost to Cilic in straight sets despite a 14-0 head-to-head against the Croatian, there was a slight air of shell-shock about proceedings as a tense first set mounted to an even tenser tie-break, in which Murray fell behind 1-6.
But there was plenty on the line for Berdych, too; a win for the Czech would have all but guaranteed him a place at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals for the seventh straight year, while defeat would (and, as it turned out, did) end all his hopes and his season in one go. And a seemingly unassailable 6-1 lead was quickly eroded, first by two big serves by Murray for 6-3, then a deep return by Murray on a second serve for a forehand error off the back foot: 6-4. Another forehand error from Berdych left him with just one set point and then that too was gone as the Murray backhand wrongfooted the Czech, not the most agile of players at the best of times, to elicit a forehand error.
Berdych didn’t exactly have a monopoly on the nerves, as Murray demonstrated with a calamitous double fault for a sixth set point, but the net cord came to his rescue as it carried Berdych’s attacking forehand long. Then it was Berdych’s turn to double fault immensely at 9-9 and Murray – finally – came up with the goods: A devastating serve and forehand combination that eluded even the long-limbed Berdych’s flailing reach to close out the nearly 16-minute set. Murray broke immediately in the second set and, despite one final wobble when he was broken to love as he served for the match (Berdych obligingly returned the favour), dominated the match from there for a 7-6(9), 7-5 win.
‘Before the match there were a few more nerves maybe than there was earlier in the week,’ Murray said. ‘But once I got out there, I didn't feel any different to any other match.
‘If it happens this week, great. But if not, I'm not putting any extra pressure on myself this week because I still think I have an opportunity to do it in the future. But obviously I'd love to do it tomorrow if I can.’
Milos Raonic (Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
Milos Raonic is the man who will be hoping to spoil Murray’s party in Paris. The big Canadian was the man of the moment for most of the first half of 2016. Despite lingering injury issues – notably around the adductor – Raonic put together a hugely impressive first half of the season, starting with a title in Brisbane (beating Roger Federer) before making the semifinals of the Australian Open, finishing runner-up at Indian Wells and then making back-to-back finals at the two most prestigious grass-court events, Queen’s Club and Wimbledon, beating Federer once more at the latter to finish runner-up to Murray.
Since the high of his first Grand Slam final, however, Raonic’s form dropped off dramatically and he’s been a negligible factor in the latter stages of 2016, with semifinals at the Cincinnati Masters and in Beijing (where his campaign ended with a walkover) the only highlights. Raonic failed to win back-to-back matches at his last two events, losing to Jack Sock in the third round in Shanghai and to qualifier Ricardas Berankis in the first round in Basel. But Paris has always suited Raonic – he was runner-up here in 2014 – and although he is conspicuously taped around the knee, he has dropped just one set on his way to the semifinals and had little difficulty subduing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in straight sets on Friday despite the hostility of the crowd.
Will Raonic stop Murray from grasping the opportunity offered to him? There’s absolutely a case to be made that he can. Murray is 8-3 against Raonic, but the Canadian actually led their head-to-head in 2014 before Murray beat him in their last seven encounters (including 6-3, 6-3 in Cincinnati in their most recent meeting). All five of their matches in 2016 have gone Murray’s way, but some of them have been extremely close: Raonic was winning at the Australian Open before injury intervened and he lost in five, and he was up a set and a break on Murray in the Queen’s Club final before his nerves got the better of him. Once not much more than an extremely big serve and a forehand, Raonic is a vastly improved and much more versatile player in 2016 and the courts will help him a lot in Paris. Murray will have to serve very well, return better and be absolutely clinical in the inevitable tie breaks in order to win; he will also have to make Raonic run as much as possible and test that taped knee to its limits. This match is by no means a formality, nor a foregone conclusion. Murray, fatigued as he is, will have to be at his most tenacious once more to secure the ultimate reward.
Murray vs Raonic is scheduled on Court Central in Paris on Saturday at 4.30pm local/3.30pm GMT