400 will have to wait, but ‘sad’ is not in Philipp Kohlschreiber’s vocabulary
After his loss to Andy Murray in Dubai, Philipp Kohlschreiber moves on with the rest of the tour to Indian Wells next week
In the hazy, hot, mid-morning of Thursday in Dubai, it seemed as though little could match the drama of the night before. Roger Federer losing from a set up and 5-2 up in the third set, and even conceding a 5-2 and then a 5-1 lead in the two tie-break sets, was unfamiliar territory here: Even the seven-time champion was at a loss for words or excuses.
But the very next morning, still hot but with no haze to filter the sun, the talk was of another drama-packed night. This time, the world No1 Andy Murray had come within a hair’s breadth of losing to the slight and elegant 33-year-old from Germany, Philipp Kohlschreiber. Seven times in the second set, Murray fended off match points in what will become one of the most talked-about tie-breakers of the year.
It was not just the plethora of match points that made this so compelling, nor that it lasted over half an hour, nor that Murray required 20 points to win it, nor that both players and umpire forget the change of ends at 15 all.
What will be remembered is the quality of the tennis, the boldness of the shot-making, the defence-turned-attack from Murray, the courageous attack and tally of winners from Kohlschreiber, a man who stands just 5ft10ins yet who finished at the net 31 times, picked off smashes, and forced the best of Murray’s touch and mobility.
For two and a half hours, the men stood toe-to-toe while the thousands who filled the Dubai Duty Free centre court sat on the edges of their seats. But the resilient and confident Murray survived the best that Kohlschreiber had to offer. The final set was swift and ruthless, a 6-1, 25-minute domination to the winning post by the Briton.
The chances of Kohlschreiber beating Murray had always been slim. After all, he had not beaten Murray since their first match back in 2010—though just like this Dubai classic, few will forget the show put on by the same men at Roland Garros in 2014, where once again, Kohlschreiber came achingly close, losing 12-10 in the fifth set after more than four hours.
But while most here hoped that Murray would not join the exit of top names from the draw, a win for Kohlschreiber would have marked something a little special for one of the most consistent and liked players on the tour.
For more than a decade, the German has resided in between 16 and 40 in the rankings, though he was quick to counter, “Yes, I would say as a German I am very consistent! I would even, maybe, like to improve!”
He was also playing for his 400th match-win, though faced with that news, he smiled, said thanks, and added, “Well, I think I have hopefully a few more years to play on the tour, so I’m pretty confident that I’m gonna make 400-plus—hopefully.”
Always courteous and often witty, the German’s English is as near perfect as it gets. In a conversation with Kohlschreiber ahead of his Wimbledon campaign a year or so ago, we touched on his near-miss against his long-standing friend Federer in Halle the week before.
A win would have boosted the German into a seeding, and he had arguably played the better tennis in their tense three-setter than the Swiss: He led Federer 5-3 in the final set tie-breaker, but the Swiss played clutch at the key moments to clinch the win.
It would have been easy to for him to feel resentful, but that is not the German’s way:
“The matches we play are always very good and we are also good friends outside the match area. We practise a lot and joke around, so it’s great. He’s a huge gentleman, and a great inspiration also for my tennis.”
Then he added, with a grin: “He’s much older than I am!” Federer is 35 to Kohlschreiber’s 33, so there is presumably more inspiration to be drawn from the Swiss star’s Australian Open title a month ago.
Perhaps they get on, too, because despite Kohlschreiber’s less illustrious career, he enjoys the same ‘glass half full’ demeanour as his friend.
Of his amiable personality, he said after his 398th win here in Dubai:
“Actually, I try to be always the guy who tries to make other people smile, you know. Sometimes I do a few things too much, you know, like—I don’t know, trying to be funny…
“[But] I’m a happy person. It’s a very good environment. Many players on tour, same faces, you have some friendships. People you see almost every week. So it’s a good connection. I could be more funny on court, I have to be honest. Outside, I think I’m very open.”
Even so, Kohlschreiber may have been forgiven for sounding a little less than perky after coming so close to that huge 400th victory. Not a bit of it.
“Of course, losing is always disappointing, but I’m not sad. I think I played great tennis, one of my best matches. OK, the result is sad, but the way I played, the way I enjoyed myself on the court, nothing to be sad about.”
“I think also Andy played—I hope he will say that—a really good match. I think we both played almost the best tennis we can play.
“Yeah, you can be thinking about one, two shots. Was just a great match, and I think the end with the spectators showed that everybody’s had a really great day.”
He was not wrong. It was hard to find a face without a smile, and even as he waited patiently for more media to take their turn after the match, he too smiled.
Kohlschreiber moves on with the rest of the tour to Indian Wells next week, and will hope for a kinder draw than last year’s, when he faced then No1 and eventual champion Novak Djokovic in the second round. But even if he does, he will still hope to make it 400 in the desert. And that will certainly be worth another smile.