It started with eight and ended up with three. Out of the cream of the tennis crop to compete at the Dubai Tennis Championships, only Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Gilles Simon could fight fatigue and frustration to roll up at the Aviation Club on Sunday.
Rafael Nadal joined Roger Federer in announcing his withdrawal early last week, the strains of last season still gnawing at the top two players in the world. Nikolay Davydenko, Andy Roddick and Fernando Verdasco, the world No5, No6 and No9 respectively, quickly followed suit to take the sheen off one of the glitziest tournaments on the tennis calendar.
And yesterday, the tournament was dealt a further blow when Murray – who had progressed through two rounds – pulled out with a virus,Emirates' sports fans, and tournament officials, will have been perplexed by the pruning of its pedigree, especially as tennis has enjoyed some titanic tussles between Nadal and Federer of late. Although a repeat of the epic Australian Open final – Nadal won in a thrilling five-set encounter – was rendered impossible by the pull outs, the remaining residents of the top four have offered some desert highlights. The two would have planned to shorten the difference in the rankings – 1,400 points separate Murray from Djokovic, while the Serb is 2,000 behind Federer.
But the matching motives of closing the gap depict deeper similarities between Djokovic and Murray. Born a week apart, the friends from junior level both come from sporting families. Djokovic was groomed for a career on the slopes by his father, a professional skier who wanted his son to follow his footprints in the snow.
However, he preferred tennis, a choice vindicated when Jelena Gencic, the legendary Yugoslav player, hailed the boy from Belgrade as the "greatest talent since Monica Seles" when he was just eight years old.
Djokovic wasn't the only youngster making waves, though. Murray was busy slogging it out on the court with his big brother Jamie; a rivalry that became so intense the younger sibling famously lost a nail over a disagreement at the net. It was no surprise, then, when Leon Smith, Murray's early coach, described the fiery Scot as "unbelievably competitive" for one so young.
Junior titles followed for both, prompting Djokovic to turn professional in 2003 and Murray in 2005. The Serb has since won 11 tournaments to the Scot's 10, collecting four Masters Series titles in the process.
Murray finished last year stronger than any of his peers – he won 23 of his 25 matches before the Tennis Masters Cup in November – and returned this season with wins in Abu Dhabi, Doha and Rotterdam.
The one achievement missing from his CV is a Grand Slam, a feat Djokovic can boast having defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to the 2008 Australian Open title. Murray, the favourite when Djokovic defended his trophy unsuccessfully in January, is understandably keen to put things right.
"I still think I can get better," he said before pulling out this week. "There's no question about that, I'm only 21. It's just because I've been on Tour for quite a few years that people expect it to happen very soon. Guys like Nadal are an exception to the rule that you play your best tennis when you're in your mid-20s.
"He's played his best the last couple of years. But I'll just keep working away. I think my consistency's got better and now it comes down to just playing well in the big tournaments. That's what's going to move my ranking higher and win me a Grand Slam."
Meanwhile, Djokovic admitted in Dubai that a major title isn't too far from Murray's grasp. His occasional doubles partner tasted his first Grand Slam final at the US Open in September, only to lose to a resurgent Roger Federer in straight sets.
"Andy's one of the best players in the world," said Djokovic.
"There's no doubt. He's been playing fantastic tennis in the past couple of months so he's proven that. He's gained a lot of strength physically; he's there at the top and is always playing really smart tennis. It's only a matter of time before he wins a Grand Slam title."
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