Andy Murray downs Roger Federer in Dubai as big guns switch from practice to match-mode

Andy Murray beats Roger Federer as Singapore Slammers secure a 27-24 win over the UAE Royals at the IPTL in Dubai

The paths of two of the best players in the world, No2 Andy Murray and No3 Roger Federer, collided in an unusual fashion at this unseasonably late stage of the tennis calendar.

The place was Dubai, the luxury location more used to the high-stakes ATP tournament in February. But this December has brought a bonus: the International Premier Tennis League arrived on the fourth leg of its fast-paced tour, and with it some of the biggest names, past and present, in tennis

Dubai is often home to Federer—second home, anyway. This always-warm, invariably dry city by the sea is the Swiss superstar’s regular training base. He is no newcomer to the IPTL, either. Last year he signed up with the Indian Aces and played New Delhi to a rapturous welcome. And so much fun did he have that he signed up again—this time for the UAE Royals, and this time for three legs.

Fun, though? Not so much after the first two matches: two singles, two doubles, and yet to score a win. The rapturous welcome was still there in India, but he was dropped into the lion’s den—against old adversary Rafael Nadal—within hours of landing, and had, in any case, only lately returned from his post-World Tour Finals holiday. The Spaniard, already with a sequence of IPTL wins in his wake, proved too much—as did the hot doubles pairing of Nadal with the impressive Rohan Bopanna in doubles.

Perhaps ‘home’ soil, though, would prove more profitable? In a strangely flat first evening on this three-day Dubai residency, the crowds were thin, despite the presence not just of Federer but the 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic. And as in Delhi, the Federer/Cilic partnership failed to gel. What’s more Federer also lost to giant-killer, Ivo Karlovic—a man he had beaten in 12 of 13 previous matches.

But judging from the volume of media streams in which Federer has featured this week, he was being spread very thin: He did solo press conferences, joint conferences with Nadal, courtside interviews as his colleagues played—“hold on a second, this is a great point!”—plus pre-match round-tables and post-match interviews.

He reaffirmed, time and again, that he still has no plans to retire, he is enjoying the IPTL, he will announce his schedule soon, the Australian Open is his first priority… and at some point along the way, he found time to shave off the beard that had become another constant source of questioning.

Dubai Day 2 brought something new, a one-off set against the man who had usurped his No2 ranking as the tour headed to its conclusion, and who had capped that with his own headline-dominating run towards Davis Cup victory.

For while his colleagues were winding down for a post-WTFs rest, Murray was cranking up for one of the biggest challenges of his career.

The Briton had won 71 matches and four titles during a strong 2015, but none matched the last, a win that sealed GB’s first Davis Cup in almost 80 years.

In days, Murray switched from the O2’s hard courts to Ghent’s clay to win two singles and a doubles rubber. Less than a week later, he was playing Tie Break 10s at the Albert Hall in pursuit of £50,000 for his UNICEF campaign. But far from feeling exhausted, he then talked about adding the IPTL to his schedule:

“I was planning to do my off-season training in Dubai, and I said if there are any matches once I’m there training, then I could do it… It’s obviously good to play practice sets, I’m living on the site where they’re playing: it makes sense.”

He rolled into town, too, with coach Amelie Mauresmo—making her return from maternity leave—plus Davis Cup colleagues Leon Smith, Kyle Edmund and brother Jamie.

His appetiser, and his chance to warm up the cooling Dubai evening, was mixed doubles with fellow Rogers Cup champion and another Swiss, Belinda Bencic. In contrast, Federer would warm up in men’s doubles with Cilic against the charismatic Singapore Slammers’ duo, Nick Kyrgios and doubles No1 Marcelo Melo.

But it was the last set between the two singles stars that promised the most, and while neither man would give much weight to winning or losing, it would be intriguing for the subtle probing of game and form ahead of their campaigns Down Under.

Their evenly-balanced rivalry has, since 2013, tilted strongly in Federer’s favour, 14-11, with five straight wins for the Swiss, including two blistering victories this year in the semis of Wimbledon and Cincinnati. Last year, Federer exacted revenge over Murray in Australia for his loss in a dramatic five-set battle the year before—the last time Murray beat Federer.

In Dubai, they had shared the honours, Murray winning in the first round in 2008, Federer winning in 2012 to claim one of seven titles here. Naturally, it was the latter that he chose to recall:
“I’ll think more of the finals when I beat him rather than a first round loss which you sort of erase from your memory!”

“We’ve had great matches. I think we match up well so I hope tomorrow’s going to be nice. The court plays different—definitely slower than the Dubai tournament—so can’t play exactly the same way.

“I’m not sure how well he’s been playing of late, how much practice he’s had since the Davis Cup finals, but I feel like I’m only going to get better from here.”

Up-beat then, and despite a surprise rain delay earlier in the evening, a bigger crowd turned out for this battle between Grand Slam champions.

Murray answered Federer’s question pretty swiftly in his doubles match: He was full of beans, hitting lobs and volleys cleanly, eager to move forward. He and Bencic lost the set, but come the men’s doubles, Murray was subbed in as the UAE Royals served for the set, and turned it around with some inspired shot-making.

It boded well for the singles, and with Mauresmo and Smith looking on, Murray rode his momentum in some remarkable plays, looked sharp and fast, and Federer could not respond. Indeed alongside the Briton, he looked slow in defence while Murray was onto the Swiss serve and baseline game in a flash. The Briton went 3-0 up—and the UAE bench was subdued, almost non-plussed.

Murray had Federer at 0-40, 2-5, but suddenly Federer came alive, saved the game, broke to love and was on level terms. But not for the first time, his serve let him down, and in under half an hour, Murray had the win, 6-4.

Murray had three aces, Federer two double faults; Murray had seven winners to Federer’s five, only nine errors to 15—and always looked the winner.

Federer could only smile, joke about knowing the rules but still being 0-6 in matches, and that Murray even deprived him of a near-win in the men’s doubles… before retreating to leave Murray in the limelight.

The Briton was all smiles, revelling—as in Ghent—in the team environment. It was impressive tennis from a man with so little time off and so little time in Dubai, playing his first match here.

Murray’s great rival Novak Djokovic famously rode his form and confidence to his best ever season in 2011. It’s early days, of course, but Murray had the same look—in Ghent and here in Dubai. The message is clear: watch out the rest.

Alan Shearer (Photo: BBC Sport / Screengrab)
Alan Shearer reacts to Chelsea FC’s 1-0 win over Man City in FA Cup semi-final
Timo Werner
Ashley Cole raves about Timo Werner after Chelsea FC’s 1-0 win over Man City
Owen Hargreaves
Owen Hargreaves urges Man United to make this ‘amazing’ signing
Michael Owen
Michael Owen states his prediction for Chelsea FC v Man City
Unai Emery
Unai Emery reacts to Villarreal facing Arsenal in the Europa League
Alan Shearer (Photo: BBC Sport / Screengrab)
Alan Shearer reacts to Chelsea FC’s 1-0 win over Man City in FA Cup semi-final
Timo Werner
Ashley Cole raves about Timo Werner after Chelsea FC’s 1-0 win over Man City
Owen Hargreaves
Owen Hargreaves urges Man United to make this ‘amazing’ signing
Michael Owen
Michael Owen states his prediction for Chelsea FC v Man City
Unai Emery
Unai Emery reacts to Villarreal facing Arsenal in the Europa League
Top 50 Muslim footballers: Arsenal, Chelsea FC, Liverpool FC and Man United stars feature
Top 50 Muslim footballers: Arsenal, Chelsea FC, Liverpool FC and Man United stars feature