Roger Federer’s bid to extend his record of Dubai Open titles to seven moved 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 ATP 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.
Federer says Coric plays a little like Djokovic.
“I agree he is more into the Djokovic kind of type of player from the baseline, very steady,” Federer said.
“He seems to really play up when it matters against the better players.
“Regardless of the level, to beat Murray 6-1 6-3, it’s a great score… It’s definitely a message I get,” Federer concluded very ominously.
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.
“I made way too many mistakes from the beginning right through to the end,” Murray said.
“I was rushing the points. I don’t know exactly why that was the case but I’m pretty sure I know how the match went, and I don’t think I’m being wrong in saying that I made a lot of basic errors.”
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 last 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 for the past 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 from 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 delivered 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, in under three-quarters of an hour.