Not just the top seeds, either: Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, with 10 previous titles here between them, are currently the top of the ranking pile at Nos 1 and 2 respectively. The third, Andy Murray, is world No3 and a former finalist, while Tomas Berdych is ranked No8 and the losing finalist in the last two years.
So this was, by any standards, a quality line-up at what is regarded as one of the toughest and most competitive 500 events on the tour.
The day and night schedules, though, promised big contrasts: Two of the four stars faced men who, on paper, had very little chance of making a breakthrough on this daunting stage.
The last to try his chances would be qualifier Marsel Ilhan, ranked 104 and here after his first win on the main tour since the US Open in 2011—and that was by retirement of his opponent. He faced Djokovic.
The first to face the fireworks on a hot Thursday afternoon was lucky loser Borna Coric, age just 18 and in the draw after losing in the second round of qualifying in a tough 3-6, 7-6, 6-7.
Coric, ranked 84, had not made life easy for himself once into the main draw either: two more three-set marathons. And now he faced a fresh, fit and strong Murray, who had yet to drop a set.
Even so, Djokovic rated the young player very highly: “Well, he’s definitely one of the most talented players right now the world. He beat [Rafael] Nadal in Basel four or five months ago, and since that tournament you can feel he has matured a lot. He feels comfortable playing with top players.”
So would Murray’s route be as straight-forward as expected?
The answer was a resounding no, as the upset of the tournament so far unfolded in dramatic and impressive style.
For the young man from Croatia who turned up was very like the one who put Nadal to the sword in Basel. The difference was that Nadal has been unwell, wrestling with appendicitis and barely recovered from wrist injury.
Murray, conversely, had played well in the first two rounds here, but the first game threw down the gauntlet as a 41-stroke rally of cat and mouse took Coric to deuce. Murray made a lucky net-cord reply to fend off a break point and held, but he could not hold off the teenager in the third game. Three deuces and two break points later, Coric had the lead, and then consolidated with a love hold.
Murray could simply not find his range and rhythm, thrown perhaps by the quality—in serve, defence and movement—of Coric. He was broken twice and Coric now had the Centre Court in the palm of his hand, 6-1.
That had taken around 35 minutes. After an hour, and a rather more closely contested few games, Murray was facing another break point. He held, but again he was immediately pressured again but an attacking, scurrying Coric. First a smash onto the sideline, then a drop shot pick-up for a winning lob and Murray was down 2-4.
A love hold for 5-2 and then a backhand hit wide by Murray on match point, and Coric’s victory was complete—and the teenager’s reception was that of a potential new champion.
Which was appropriate: Until today, Djokovic, who had praised the young man to the skies the night before, had been the tournament’s youngest quarter-finalist, now Coric was also the Dubai’s youngest semi-finalist.
Murray could not explain his dip in form, nor his error-strewn performance: “I think he didn’t make many errors. He played very solid and he moved well. I made way too many mistakes from the beginning of the match right through to the end, early in rallies, rushing points. Quite similar to the match I played against Simon in Rotterdam, actually, which is disappointing.
“I definitely know that I rushed in both matches and made too many errors early in rallies and almost kind of got stuck in how I wanted to play.”
But make no mistake, this was as much won by Coric as lost by Murray. The young man bristles with enthusiasm for his tennis, and was as articulate and smart here as he had been after beating Nadal.
He talked of his luck in taking the spot vacated by Philipp Kohlschreiber: “I think I was really lucky with Kohlschreiber pulling out. That’s life. Sometimes you’re going to get lucky. Maybe next tournament I will have match point and I’m not going to take it. That’s tennis. One week you gonna play good, you gonna be lucky, and it’s those kind of days for you to take opportunities.”
He credited Djokovic with his support and encouragement, and then revealed the Serb’s kind of determination when asked about the tattoo on his upper arm:
“I did it for the off-season when I had some time off: ‘There is nothing worse in life than being ordinary.’”
But then the teenager surfaced, and you remembered what an achievement today’s had been:
“I like the tattoos, so I said, Why not? I’m 18 now so I can do whatever I want. [But my mum said] that I’m stupid!”
Having beaten Murray, and Nadal last October, he may now have the chance of a shot at Federer, if the Swiss beat Gasquet in his quarter-final. Coric’s view?
“I have nothing lose, just literally nothing to lose. I feel so special after I lost in the second round of qualies, so, you know, just go on the court, enjoy, learn, you know, see how he’s playing. Mostly not going to go in the match like I’m going to lose, because otherwise I’m going to stay in my room or go home!”
Federer’s task was perhaps the toughest of the four, pitting him against a former No7 and winner of a title this year already: Gasquet won in Montpellier a fortnight ago, and had beaten Federer twice before.
It would be a few hours before the rest of Dubai’s schedule unfolded.
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