Five weeks after losing to Novak Djokovic in an epic semi-final at the Australian Open, Andy Murray has the chance here today to underline his belief that there is little to choose between the two men when they meet on an outdoor hard court.
The world's No 1 and No 4 players, who are both playing their first tournament since Melbourne, meet in the semi-finals of the Dubai Duty Free Championships with significantly more than prize-money and ranking points at stake.
Murray, an impressive 6-3, 7-5 winner over Tomas Berdych yesterday, took great heart from his performances in Australia – nobody came closer to beating Djokovic than the Scot, who went within five points of victory in their four-hour 50-minute marathon – and is relishing the opportunity to become the first player to beat the world No 1 this year. Djokovic took his 2012 record to 10 wins out of 10 by beating his fellow Serb, Janko Tipsarevic, 6-1, 7-6.
"The matches in the Slams are the ones that are the most important, but any time you get a win against the No 1 player in the world it's important," Murray said. "You don't get a chance to play them that often."
The tournament here has been using a publicity slogan that proclaims "the heat is on". The weather for last week's women's event was unusually chilly, but since the start of the men's competition the temperatures have been rising. Murray, playing in the heat of the day for the third afternoon in succession, won with the on-court temperature well into the nineties.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Today's line-up features three of the world's top four, Roger Federer having coasted into the semi-finals – in which he will face Juan Martin del Potro, the world No 10 – with a 6-3, 6-4 victory over Russia's Mikhail Youzhny. Rafael Nadal, the only member of the Fab Four who is not here, having decided to rest a sore shoulder, will no doubt be watching with interest.
Today was a chance for Murray to assess his game going into the Masters Series tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami. "It would be good to see exactly what I need to work on," he said. "I had a great match with him in Australia and, hopefully, I can reverse the result."
Djokovic has won three of their four meetings since the start of last year, but their matches since the Serb's comprehensive victory in the 2011 Australian Open final offer Murray plenty of encouragement. He served for the match in their Rome Masters semi-final, won the Cincinnati Masters after Djokovic retired with a sore shoulder when trailing in the second set and then pushed him all the way in Melbourne.
Born just a week apart, Murray and Djokovic have known each other since they met in an under-12s tournament. "It's a great rivalry," Djokovic said. "He's one of the biggest talents that I have seen in the game. He has an all-round game. He can play equally well in defence and offence. He has a great serve, he's very solid from both strokes on the baseline, so there are not many weaknesses. I think we have similar styles. We try to win our service games because we both have great returns."
Murray had lost his last three matches against Berdych but took charge from the moment he made the only break of the first set in the second game. While Berdych was always ready to punish anything short, Murray generally did a good job of keeping the Czech on the back foot and forcing him into mistakes. The only concern for the Scot was a sore right knee, which he said had troubled him intermittently since the start of the season.
During the final game Berdych had a heated debate with Mohamed Layani, the umpire, over a controversial ruling when he was on break point. A Murray serve, which Berdych returned into the net, was called out, but the Scot made a successful Hawk-Eye challenge and was awarded the point.
Berdych protested, claiming – wrongly – that the general rule was that if a returner got his racket on the ball in such circumstances the point should be replayed. Layani's ruling was based on his opinion that the line judge's call had not affected Berdych's return. Television replays confirmed that Berdych had hit the ball a split-second before the line judge made his call.
Match-up: The stats
Djokovic and Murray have met four times since the start of last year:
Australian Open final Djokovic won 6-4, 6-2, 6-3.
Rome Masters semi-final Djokovic won 6-1, 3-6, 7-6.
Cincinnati Masters final Murray won 6-4, 3-0 (Djokovic retired hurt).
Australian Open semi-final Djokovic won 6-3, 3-6, 6-7, 6-1, 7-5.