Andy Murray booked his place in a 20th Masters Series final with a 6-4 6-3 victory over Gilles Simon at the Shanghai Masters.
Murray remains on course for back-to-back titles in Asia having claimed the China Open in Beijing last week and he is into his career best 10th final of the year on the back of another straight sets win, although Frenchman Simon gave him his toughest work-out of the week.
Murray will face Roberto Bautista Agut in Sunday’s final, live on Sky Sports 3 from 9.30am, after the Spaniard stunned Novak Djokovic in the day’s opening semi-final.
Djokovic was the defending champion in Shanghai, but his shock semi-final defeat, coupled with Murray’s sixth title of 2016 would close the gap at the top the world rankings – a goal Murray has made no secret of chasing.
The Scot still has some way to go to usurp the formidable Serb, but if he continues to play the sort of tennis he has produced over the past two weeks, then he will eat into Djokovic’s lead by the time they head to the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals at London’s O2 in November.
Speaking to Sky Sports after the match, Murray said: “I said that I want to try to get to number one, but this year is going to be extremely difficult.
“The loss [by Djokovic] today helps me a little bit, but I’m still quite far away from him, so I’m not thinking about the number one ranking this week or right now.
“The start of the year Novak had was incredible and because it was three, four months ago, it’s almost like people are forgetting that he won the Aussie Open, Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and French Open, so he’s a long way ahead of me.
“I just want to finish this year as best as I can, it’s been the most successful in my career. The last few months have been some of the most consistent I have been, so I just want to keep it going until the end of the year and finish as strong as possible.”
Murray has now won nine successive matches and 18 consecutive sets in Asia and will start as a strong favourite against Bautista Agut having beaten him on both occasions they have met.
Simon proved a match for Murray in an opening set which featured six breaks of serve, including Murray’s first dropped game which came in the opening game of the match.
Murray had reached the last four in Shanghai without dropping serve but Simon forced an early opening which he gleefully accepted having won the toss and opting to receive.
The Frenchman held serve to lead 2-0 but Murray roared back to reel off four games in succession, including two breaks of serve to take a hold on the match with gruelling rallies a feature of the exchanges.
Simon, 31, is nothing if not resilient and he broke straight back himself to get back in contention for the opening set.
But the pair continued to trade service games with Murray making the crucial breakthrough in the tenth game of the set with the fifth successive break of serve, sealing the game and the set with a sumptuous lob that left Simon dumbfounded.
Simon’s first serve continued to give Murray chances and the Scot struck immediately in the second set, breaking the world No 32 for an advantage he would not relinquish.
The Scot found blistering form on his own serve while breaking Simon at will throughout to serve for the match at 5-1.
Showing great character Simon clawed one of the breaks back before holding serve to force Murray to serve out the match. The world No 2 held his nerve and clattered down two massive serves to seal victory and with it a place in his third Masters final of the year.
Murray was victorious in Rome while losing in both the Madrid and Cinicinatti finals but he will have a chance of a third Shanghai title when he takes on Spain’s Bautista Agut on Sunday but he is wary of the world number 19’s threat.
“He’s had some very good wins this week. He beat Tsonga in the round before so he’s obviously playing very well,” Murray added.
“He pushes the top guys a lot, he’s improving all the time and he’s going to be highly-motivated for his first Masters Series final, so a lot to play for for both of us and it should be a great match.”