March 4, 2012

Like Old Times

At this time last year we hardly knew what we were in for. Novak Djokovic's title in Dubai had just capped off a fourteen-match win streak, one that would triple before it ended. Roger Federer had completed his first twelve-month run without a Grand Slam since 2003 and had lost two matches in a row to the ascendant Serb -- it would be almost an entire season before he claimed another title on Tour.

But then things started turning around. Fatigue and injury slowed Nole down at the end of the year while Federer went 15-0 to claim three titles of his own. His Slam-less streak continues, but he's not letting go of his hold on the top ranks of the sport, and after sailing to a win in Rotterdam, he came to Dubai looking for his first title here since 2007.

His road to the final was not an easy one. Facing off first against last week's Marseille finalist Michael Llodra, he delivered one bagel set but battled through a tight tiebreak to take the second. He then squared off against former top-ten player Mikhail Youzhny, himself on a comeback trail after dispatching Mardy Fish in the second round. In his semifinal against one-time vanquisher Juan Martin Del Potro, he was unable to convert on any of six break points, but took the two-tiebreak win in just under two hours.

In the final he faced a familiar foe in Andy Murray who, somewhat surprisingly, had never made it past the quarters in the UAE. He began his campaign with a little rust on his swing, losing serve five times to world #116 Michael Berrer in his three-set first round. He cleaned up his game in the days that followed, though, stopping Montpellier champ Tomas Berdych in his tracks and then stunning three-time defending champion Djokovic in under an hour and a half.

His luck ran out in Saturday's final. After failing to convert on two break chances in the sixth game, Murray found himself on the losing side of the first set. Federer got off to a good start in the second as well, breaking his opponent in the third game and building a 3-1 lead. The Scot came back immediately and evened the score, but then King Roger ticked off three straight games to seal the deal.

The win marks Roger's fifth title in Dubai, his first in five years. And with wins over two real top-ten players -- and a couple looking like they're in the top-ten -- he's reiterated that he continues to be a contender at the big events. He may not have begun the year with as much flash and glamour as we've become used to, but if he's really looking to make the climb back to the top of the sport, it sure looks like he's off to a good start. And with just two losses in his last thirty-five matches, it sure looks like he might get there sooner than we think.

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