Roger Federer's bid to extend his record of Dubai Duty Free titles to seven carried him into the semi-finals with record-breaking speed and to a meeting with the new wunderkind of tennis.
It took only 20 minutes on Thursday for the 17-time Grand Slam champion to win the first set 6-1 against Richard Gasquet, whereupon the Frenchman shuffled up to the net, offered his hand, and retired, suffering with a bad back.
It was disappointingly anti-climactic but it did create the intriguing prospect of Federer facing Borna Coric, the 18-year-old Croatian who only got into the main draw as a lucky loser, but who has now become the youngest semi-finalist in the tournament's 23-year history.
Coric, described by world number one Novak Djokovic as "definitely one of the most talented players in the world right now", scored a trampling 6-1, 6-3 success over former Wimbledon and US Open champion Andy Murray.
In fact Murray was a long way below his best but Coric still did enough, with consistent containing and counter-attacking allied to excellent focus, to impress while becoming the youngest player to reach the semi-finals of the tournament.
It was evident from the start that an upset was on the cards. Although Murray won the finest rally of the match, a 41-stroke mixture of brilliant patterns, he only did so with a fortunate net cord and soon he had dropped serve twice in a row.
The Briton was uncharacteristically disappointing both with his error ratio and in his shot selection, while his improvement in the second set was brief.
Coric called it "one of the biggest wins of my life" — he also had a win over a not fully-fit Nadal in October — and admitted that he "had no game plan because he (Murray) doesn't have any weak spots.
"I was just trying to maintain the level and stay in the rally as long as I could," he said.
That had worked very well the previous day when he struggled back to parity after trailing 1-4 and 3-5 in the final set against Marcos Baghdatis, and was rewarded by his opponent retiring with cramp at 4-4 in the tie-break.
The other semi-final will be between Djokovic, who is aiming for his fifth title, and Tomas Berdych, the Czech who has been runner up here for the last two years.
Berdych has also had the best start to a year of his career, with two finals and now a second semi-final, and claims this is partly due to the influence of coach Dani Valverdu, who parted company with Murray during the close season.
He got on top when it mattered most in a 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 win over Sergiy Stakhovsky, the Ukrainian who upset Federer at Wimbledon two years ago.
But Djokovic has beaten Berdych 17 times out of 19 and has restarted with great energy after the Australian Open triumph which brought him the eighth Grand Slam title of his career last month.
Djokovic earned himself a repeat of the final of two years ago by beating Marsel Ilhan, a qualifier from Turkey, 6-1, 6-1.
It lasted less than three-quarters of an hour.
An out-of-sorts Andy Murray lost in straight sets to Croatian teenager Borna Coric to crash out of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Thursday.
Murray thrashed Coric in a Davis Cup singles tie in September 2013 in their only other previous meeting, but was second best throughout Thursday’s quarter-final encounter as the 18-year-old Coric won 6-1 6-3 in one hour and 19 minutes.
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Coric’s reward for claiming the world number three’s scalp is a semi-final match against Roger Federer, providing the Swiss world number two can successfully overcome Richard Gasquet later.
Murray’s error-strewn display, in which he hit 55 unforced errors, was in stark contrast to the impressive tennis the Scot played on his way to the Australian Open final just three weeks ago.
The two-time grand slam winner began steadily enough, holding his serve to take a 1-0 lead, but found himself chasing the set in a matter of minutes as Coric, who beat Rafael Nadal at last year’s Swiss Open, held with ease then converted a second break point against the Scot to move into a 2-1 advantage.
Coric did not drop a point as he held his second service game and extended his lead to 4-1 by converting his fourth break point as Murray struggled to get a foothold in the game.
Coric breezed through his third service game to make it 5-1 and broke Murray for a third time to win the first set after the Scot sliced a backhand ground stroke into the net to notch his 27th unforced error.
Murray matched his opponent in the early stages of the second set as it went with serve and drew on all his experience to level to 2-2 as Coric stepped up the pressure.
The Croatian, the youngest player in the men’s top 100, was exhibiting skill and poise that belied his tender years and after breezing through yet another service game, he produced a fine lob to break Murray to take a 4-2 lead.
Coric was in total control by this point and held serve without dropping a point before wrapping up a thoroughly deserved victory moments later when Murray skewed a regulation forehand return wide of the mark.
Afterwards Murray praised world number 84 Coric’s performance, admitting that his slow start to the match had ultimately cost him.
He is one of the most intriguing tennis players on social media and has been a constant presence in the top-10 for the past four-and-a-half years.
Always stoic on the court, Tomas Berdych showed a humorous side no one knew existed, when he joined Twitter mid-2013.
On the court, he has hired a new coach in Dani Vallverdu at the end of last year and is hoping the Venezuelan can help take him from perennial contender to grand slam champion.
We caught up with the recently engaged Czech world No8 at the Jumeirah Creekside Hotel in Dubai to find out more about his life off the court.
You were out practising on both Saturday and Sunday in a horrendous sandstorm ahead of the tournament. How do you practise in conditions like that?
It’s pretty tough. It’s not easy to play in windy conditions, that’s probably the worst conditions we can have for tennis; and if you add the sand into it, then it’s even worse.
— Novak Djokovic (@DjokerNole) February 21, 2015
I think it was more to just go there, try to have a hit, hope that it’s not going to be that bad. That’s basically it. You can’t expect that you’re going to have perfect rhythm and hit the balls extremely well and clean. But you have to do it because the conditions could be like that or similar on the day of the match and it’s always good to have tried it before.
So you never thought for a second ‘the weather is awful I’m staying in and not practise today’?
You can have that thought but at the end of the day you have to go there. It’s just easier that you’re focused on that ‘okay I’m going to go there, I’m going to try to use it as much as I can’.
Of course we set up the practice in the morning for an hour and a half and then we had to skip it after half an hour because it was pretty much impossible. But you have to make that effort, that’s what makes you stronger for the future.
Have you always been this disciplined, even as a kid?
Yes, I think I was pretty good with that since I was a kid. I never had a problem or issues with like ‘I’m going skip practice or go to a tournament here or there’.
— Tomáš Berdych (@tomasberdych) February 20, 2015
You’ve been quite a revelation on Twitter since you joined a year-and-a-half ago. Do you get the sense that your popularity has grown since then?
Definitely, yes. It’s very difficult to show the personality when you’re on court. Because on court, you have to be really focused for the match and whatever it takes, you have to be like that. I can really see that it might be boring, because we are all kind of shaped into the same direction, which you have to go on if you want to be really successful.
So I think Twitter is a great opportunity to bring something else to the audience and all the people around. You have some down time in between, unless you’re spending all your hours on the practice courts. People want to know about us, that we are normal humans like everyone else, doing normal stuff.
Do you feel you were misunderstood before you got a chance to show another side of yourself on Twitter?
In one way, yes, but you can’t really be upset about it because I didn’t have any option to change it, to give a different view on that. On the court I’m really focused and there’s not much happening around you. Twitter gave me the option to do it.
— Tomáš Berdych (@tomasberdych) January 16, 2015
You haven’t set a date, but do you think you’re the kind of guy who will be heavily involved in wedding planning, or you’ll leave it to your fiancée Ester (Satorova)?
I think we are pretty good in combining our ideas. What’s good is that it’s never she’s saying white and I’m saying black. We’re pretty much on the same line with whatever we want to do and how we want to do it. So I think this is going to be very simple and very easy.
You’re sponsored and clothed by H&M, a fashion brand, and you do so many photo shoots. Do you ever get self-conscious being part of any of those shoots?
I think it’s very fun actually. It’s something different and I like to try different things. It’s part of it, definitely it is. It’s what you have to expect when you are partnering with a company like H&M. I think it goes really well together. You have days in between your tournaments and if you plan it well, it’s good fun. The team is always great, I don’t see any problems at all.
Has Ester given you any modelling tips?
The good thing is that when you do some stuff with the men, shoots are much simpler, especially with sportsmen, it’s much easier, unless we do some action shots. This is much easier. The creativity still stays with the girls.
You’ve shown some amazing form in recent tournaments, but then it looks like the finishing touch hasn’t really been there. Do you feel you need to work on your killer instinct?
I think it’s many things together and combined. I think the opposition is getting better and better. It’s also that the journey is long, it’s not about one match, so you have to keep doing well all week, or two weeks when you’re talking about slams. I think that’s the magic about tennis, that it’s not one match only.
You have to really keep yourself very fresh and prepared all the time. I see it as a positive thing that the results I’ve made so far are in the right direction. There wasn’t enough time to get all those new things implemented in my game, which always takes some time. But already now I can feel that I managed to cut the time, quite a lot. And I can see the results.
So no regrets in any of the matches recently?
It’s not about regret. I can see positive signs, especially in the ones that I’ve lost. Firstly, there is a big change in terms of how to approach the game with various plans.
Also, what are the things I have to keep improving on and to be able to do that for the entire match to win. I can see all those things. It’s just a matter of time, especially time on the practice courts.