For the man who had won the Dubai title four times spends much of his time in this haven of hot sun and hot commerce: It’s as close to a home tournament as his native Basel.
But Federer is not the only one who think this place is pretty special: eight times in the last nine years, the most sparking venue on the ATP tour has won the players’ accolade as the best 500 event there is.
Year on year, this has been the event of choice for the best men in the world to prepare for the first Masters of the year, shunning the North American alternatives to instead travel half way around the globe. Now that is real star appeal.
This year, for its 20th anniversary, the Dubai tournament shone brighter than ever. Its azure blue centerpiece pounded to the feet of eight of the world’s top 10 players and the draw panned out perfectly.
All eight of the top-10 contested the quarter-final places; seven of the top eight seeds fought for their semi-final places; and the four best players—the top three seeds plus a former No4—battled it out for the final.
And while that final did not feature No1 Novak Djokovic, it was full of intrigue. During the last year, Federer and Andy Murray had been bound tightly together at Nos 3 and 4 in the rankings and had even briefly swapped places in October—the first time Federer had dropped to No4 since 2003.
Yet they had not played each other since November 2010, at which point Murray had the upper hand in their head-to-head, 8-6. Indeed, taking out Federer’s wins in Grand Slams, Murray headed the Swiss in best-of-three-set meetings, 8-4—all on hard courts.
Both, too, had been riding a real wave of form since last year’s US Open, Federer winning 32 of his last 34 matches, Murray 31 from 34, and taking four titles apiece.
In beating Djokovic in the semis, Murray seemed still to be playing with confidence and with aggressive tactics. And yet…
In Rotterdam last month, Federer looked and sounded supremely laid-back. After a few hiccups along the way, he lifted his game in the final against Juan Martin del Potro to a level reminiscent of his surge through the World Tour Finals.
Come Dubai, his form continued but now with a sterner, more focused ‘game face’. By the time he reached the final, he had been unbroken on serve for 58 games—the last break coming in the Rotterdam semis—and he had faced only two break points in Dubai, both in his first match.
It came as a surprise, then, that both Federer and Murray looked tight and nervy on their serves—perhaps mindful of the top-quality returning that their opponents had also displayed during the week.
In Murray’s case, he also had to adjust to the night conditions for the first time—perhaps some excuse for a deuce opening serve. Fortunately, Federer fluffed his first net attack and Murray held.
Even more surprisingly, Federer also looked vulnerable on his opening serve, missing six out of eight first deliveries. His backhand compensated, but after two service games he had just a 38 percent first-serve hit rate.
Come the sixth game, Federer still seemed ruffled—and not just by the light breeze on this cooler evening. He mistimed an easy volley, forced a forehand wide and a backhand into the net to face two break point, 15-40, but two errors from Murray brought it back to deuce and a rare big first serve followed by a drop volley helped Federer to hold.
By 4-4, both men were hovering in the mid-50s on serve but there was still a ragged feel to many of the points as both had trouble reading and responding to the other’s tactics. Federer netted volleys, Murray overhit forehands: It was edgy, tense and unpredictable.
As they closed in on the first set, though, it was Murray who blinked first: a double fault, a wayward forehand and a framed winning return from Federer took the Scot 0-40 down.
It temporarily galvanised Murray: he came up with an ace and a winning volley to level at deuce. But Federer sniffed his chance and threw in a chip-and-charge attack to force a Murray error, then pummelled his formidable forehand to earn another break chance. A short, chipped return of serve did the business and, with perfect Swiss timing, Federer’s serve delivered the set, 7-5.
Still there was a tension in both men’s games—a few forehand errors, a few missed first serves—but it was Federer who, as he did in the first set, insisted on taking the net position. In the third game, these aggressive tactics saw Federer chip-and-charge Murray’s serve twice and a sliver of a sliced backhand converted the first of two break points.
Federer had the advantage, and a swift hold, showcasing more volley techniques, took him to 3-1, but not for long. Murray held another ragged service game and, with a moment of magic, he played two straight lob winners to break back, 3-3.
Yet there was now something of a swagger in the Federer body language. He found a sequence of searing returns of serve to force another break.
Even serving for the match, the Swiss delivery was several notches below the one that produced 11 aces against del Potro and 12 against Feliciano Lopez, but his off-forehand took set and match, 6-4. Federer had a fifth title in as many months, and a fifth Dubai crown.
This may have been the least satisfactory final performance of the five, but Murray is the trickiest of opponents—as his history against Federer proves. This time, though, the Swiss outperformed Murray in all quarters: even poor serving by his standards—just 50 percent—had a fractional edge, and on first serves won, second serves won and returns won, Federer was the winner.
The champion will, presumably, enjoy a brief return to his own Dubai home after a week decamped into a hotel nearby, but it will not be for long. He heads to one of the most demanding double-headers of the season in California and Miami, stopping in New York for an exhibition event on the way.
The long flights will give him the chance to contemplate the return to the tour of the other man in the top-four equation, Rafael Nadal, and perhaps also the transition from the fast courts in Dubai that suit the Federer attack so well back to what are likely to be the slower, grittier courts of Indian Wells.
But Federer will surely contemplate both challenges with the spring in his step that comes from the confidence of winning—and lately, he has done plenty of that.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
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