One more seed from the original eight has bitten the Dubai dust to leave just three standing. But those three—to the relief of the organisers of the top ATP 500 tournament on the tour—are the best.
It was the No. 3 seed, Tomas Berdych, who had to step up first in what was potentially the toughest match up of the day against Nikolay Davydenko.
Both men are class acts but both struggled with their form in the latter half of last year.
For Berdych, though, things have been starting to improve.
In Rotterdam a fortnight ago, his first-round demolition of Guillermo Garcia-Lopez—dropping just six points on serve—was outstanding, but his run was brought to an abrupt halt by a dose of flu.
Then he reached the quarters in Marseille last week and he sailed through his first match in Dubai against Jeremy Chardy.
Davydenko, who pulled out of the tour with a wrist fracture at this very tournament last year, started 2011 with a final placing in Doha, but then lost three opening-round matches—until Dubai.
It was as if the intervening year had been a dream as he lost just two games against Garcia-Lopez. He also came into his second-round match with a 9-1 advantage over Berdych in a rivalry that has seen them meet in seven consecutive years.
The scene was set for a no-holds-barred contest.
In the opening set, Davydenko struggled to find his timing under the weight of the Berdych shots and fell behind 1-5 before pulling back to a more respectable 3-6.
The second set was a much more competitive affair, as Davydenko started to play more of the zippy, flat shots that have won him such a fan-base—and the Dubai crowd cheered every play from the Russian as he began to find both side lines with his sharp, angled drives.
The set was nip and tuck through to 5-5, but Berdych chose that moment to break serve and it took all of Davydenko’s tactical brilliance, aided and abetted by a couple of woeful errors on the Berdych forehand, to break back.
Now in a tie-breaker, Berdych started to vary his own tactics, venturing to the net a little more and keeping the ball low. I
t paid off, and despite a poor 55% first serve percentage, he ran out the winner, 7-6.
It was this time last year that Berdych made his surge to the upper ranks from 25 in February to eight by July. He has not dropped below that since, and he could be just as big a contender at Indian Wells and Miami as he was last year, when he reached the quarters in one and the final of the other.
The No. 2 seed Djokovic extended his Dubai winning streak to 12 matches after beating the No. 41-ranked Spaniard, Feliciano Lopez.
Djokovic was the hot favourite, having won both their previous matches, but Lopez had twice reached the Dubai finals before, in 2004 and 2008. He also has the right serve-and-volley game for the desert’s hot, hard courts.
So while Djokovic dominated the first set to lead 6-3, a loss of concentration at the start of the second allowed his opponent to take an early break and then dominate with his big left-handed ground strokes and one of the smoothest, most effortless service motions in the game.
Lopez swept the set 6-2, but Djokovic regained his focus and his range to break the first game of the decider. Although Lopez managed to draw level at 3-3, the Serb broke again to take the third set, 6-3.
The match may have looked close, but the superiority of Djokovic still stood out, most particularly in his movement.
Lopez eats up the ground when he attacks the net, but he looked almost ponderous alongside the fleet and flexible Djokovic. That is what separates the Serb from most of the rest and helps him retain control of a match even when it is littered with errors.
Djokovic’s chief rival for the Dubai title can claim the same advantage.
Federer’s win over another Spaniard, Marcel Granollers, looked even more effortless than the 6-3, 6-4 score suggested.
Playing in his 930th match on the tour, he looked fluid and confident; he was super-fast in picking up drop volleys and retrieving lobs. This was a match to showcase the variety in the Federer game, so serve-and-volley tactics were mixed up with the occasional drop shot and a high backhand lob off the baseline that left even his opponent gasping.
Federer’s buttercup yellow shirt brought a real glow of sunshine to the chilly end of the Dubai evening. He will have to work up some more heat in his quarterfinal match against Sergiy Stakhovsky—the man responsible for taking out the eighth seed, Ernests Gulbis—which is also an evening fixture.
It is likely that Federer, should he beat the Ukrainian—and it’s hard to see him not doing so—will be scheduled for the night crowds for the rest of the tournament: he is, after all, as close as they have to a home favorite.
However, that could suit his semi-final opponent, Gilles Simon, should the Frenchman continue his impressive run. Federer commented on how the cooling conditions in their Australian Open meeting last month made it harder to break through the Frenchman’s stone wall of a defence. And Simon also has a 2-0 winning record against Federer in best-of-three matches.
Before that, though, Simon is lined up for what is potentially the most fascinating match of the third round against countryman Richard Gasquet.
Simon has never beaten the man who he will join in Davis Cup competition next week, but his form suggests this could be the first time. He sailed through the No. 4 seed Mikhail Youzhny and took just 53 minutes to beat qualifier Lukas Rosol. A weary-looking Gasquet will need to get the spring back in his step if he’s to break down the seemingly impregnable defence of Simon.
So despite the survival of just three seeds, there is still much to fascinate as Dubai reaches passes its halfway point.
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