If You Pay Them

Dubai, Quarterfinals

Having laboriously convened the most august congregation of men’s tennis players it could afford, the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships was today blessed by the finest assembly of quarterfinalists since . . . well, it’s been a while. However, despite fielding the personnel, highly promising first rounds either fizzed or devolved into minor upsets, which gifted all the seeds with eminently winnable second rounds. Apart from Mardy Fish, who proved powerless before Mikhail Youzhny’s all-court onslaught and all-face beard, each seed duly won through to the final eight. There was no getting around the fact that they would now have to play each other.

All four of today’s matches looked enticing, with the stand-outs being Andy Murray facing Tomas Berdych, whom he hadn’t beaten in seven years, and Juan Martin del Potro facing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, which hadn’t happened in almost a week. Otherwise, Novak Djokovic took on Janko Tipsarevic, determined to overcome a one-match losing streak, and Youzhny faced Roger Federer for supremacy of the Seniors quarter. (Federer had already seen off Llodra and Feliciano Lopez, two dashing old-timers boasting a combined age of 61, and an aggregate record against the mighty Swiss of 0-12. Not to be outdone, Youzhny’s head-to-head coming into today’s quarterfinal was an imposing 0-11. Nonetheless, the Russian appeared to be in fearsome form, and there was of course that beard, which is of a lush density sufficient to conceal more WMDs than Iraq, which is to say some.) With the protagonists in place, the stage was set for the kinds of matches around which theatrical metaphors readily abound.

(3) Murray d. (5) Berdych, 6/3 7/5

Sadly, none of the performers had read the script. No match went to a deciding set, and even those that featured a single close set were balanced by a blowout in the other one. We were off to a bad start with Murray and Berdych, who managed to sustain disinterest through almost ninety minutes, right up until the final game, in which Murray wasted half a dozen match points and Berdych desultorily remonstrated with Mohamed Layhani over a Hawkeye ruling. That these were highlights should tell you all you need to know. Murray often clutched various parts of his leg – another highlight – though never after the points he won, which seemed odd. Afterwards he confessed that it was merely a niggle that in no way impacted on his capacity to play, which is really the ideal when it comes to injuries. It gave the Sky Sports commentators something further to discuss, saving them from having to talk about a player other than Murray. I cannot recall much of what Andrew Castle said, only that he said it at great length. His prolonged sermon was occasionally punctuated by advertisements for an insurance company, in which he starred.

(2) Federer d. Youzhny, 6/3 6/4

Soon afterwards Federer achieved his 12th straight victory over Youzhny, four of which have occurred in Dubai. As anticipated, the Russian extracted some fearsome weapons from his facial thatch, although none were apparently equipped with a guidance system. There were many wonderful shots, but too few of them found the court. Nevertheless, some of the ones that did were certainly the best of the tournament so far, including a number of audacious passing shots, executed at outrageous pace. One forehand half-volley was slapped with such accomplished disdain that it might be called Federeresque, although Federer, stranded at the net, probably wouldn’t call it that. Otherwise the second seed served ably – aided by some woeful second serve returning from his opponent – and was sufficiently accomplished off the ground to earn eleven break points, whereupon he produced his usual effort in securing only two of them.

(1) Djokovic d. (7) Tipsarevic, 6/1 7/6

(8) Del Potro d. (4) Tsonga, 7/6 6/1

Meanwhile Djokovic tweaked his usual practice of building up steam as the match wears on by starting quickly against a wayward Tipsarevic, and never letting up. There was some fight from the latter towards the end of the second set, but by interleaving it with timely errors he guaranteed that late was too late. Djokovic will face Murray in the next round. Andrew Castle went on about it. Federer will face del Potro, who with Tsonga managed to turn the most promising of today’s matches into one even more perfunctory than the others. The Argentine looked weary, which is entirely understandable given how much tennis he has played of late. However, as he did last week in Marseilles, del Potro proved that he can see off the Frenchman merely by remaining steady. It helps that his version of steady incorporates one of the biggest forehands in the sport. Having run hot and cold to reach the first set tiebreak, Tsonga thereafter entirely gave up running hot.

It’s an impressive semifinal line-up. Without question, the matches will be incredible.

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