It can be dangerous to read too much into head-to-head records. Only one current player has beaten Roger Federer more than once and never lost to him, but even Dominik Hrbaty, the world No 195, would admit that he was lucky to catch the planet's greatest player cold in first rounds on their only two meetings, in Paris in 2000 and Cincinnati four years later.
Rafael Nadal, with an 8-6 lead, and David Nalbandian, tied at 8-8, are the only top players who have regularly got the better of Federer, but Andy Murray is threatening to break into that group. The British No 1's three-set victory over Federer in the first round of the Barclays Dubai Championships here on Monday night was his second in succession following his win in Cincinnati 18 months ago.
Murray felt he could beat Federer from the moment he played him in their only other encounter, when the Swiss won their Bangkok final three years ago 6-3, 7-5. "I was really annoyed with myself because right at the start of the match I lost my serve from 40-15 up and let him go 3-0 ahead," Murray recalled. "It was pretty even for the rest of the match and I realised then that if you're going to try to play too well against someone as good as him you're going to put a lot of pressure on yourself and make mistakes. From the start I realised the best way to play against him."
Murray's 6-7, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Federer here was based, initially at least, on patient defence. The 20-year-old Scot, who reasons that it would be foolhardy to go toe-to-toe with an attacking player of Federer's brilliance, was standing about eight feet behind the baseline on the world No 1's first serve.
With Murray's own serve in such fine shape – he hit 10 aces and lost only five of the 53 points when his first serve found the target – the British No 1 was able to bide his time before putting his foot on the accelerator in the first set tie-break. If he forced the issue too hard after taking a 5-2 lead – Federer took six of the next seven points and the set – Murray's confidence never wilted. He broke serve in the middle of the next two sets, while Federer was unable to force a single break point in the whole match.
"I stayed calm the whole way through," Murray said. "That's something that I've worked on and my life is so much more relaxed now that I'm going on the court just thinking about my tennis. That's all I'm concentrating on now and I think that showed in my performance."
Asked how he had found the way to beat Federer, Murray replied: "I don't know if it's the game style so much. I go on court against Roger with the mentality that I can win the match. That's my key to getting close against him."
While acknowledging that Murray deserved to win, Federer was uncharacteristically critical in his assessment of the Scot's game, which he said had changed little since their first meeting. "He's going to have to grind very hard for the next few years if he's going to keep playing this way," Federer said. "He stands way back in the court. He has to do a lot of running and tends to wait a lot for his opponent to make a mistake. I gave him the mistakes, but I think that overall, over a 15-year career, you want to look to win a point more often than wait for the other guy to miss."
Murray, however, stressed that he adopted different tactics against different opponents and felt that his game had changed. "My serve is clearly better than it was two years ago," he said. "I feel quicker and stronger around the court. Mentally I feel better. But there are still things about my game that I want to improve and I feel that I have begun to do that this year."
Federer's exit here followed his semi-final defeat in his only previous appearance this year in the Australian Open in January – his preparations were hampered by a stomach virus - which was his earliest exit from a Grand Slam tournament since 2005. He suffered a similar slump last year, when Guillermo Canas knocked him out of the Masters series events in Indian Wells and Miami in March.
Murray rejects any suggestion that Federer is in decline. "He won three Slams last year and was in the final of the French Open. He lost in the semis in Australia, but he obviously didn't have the best preparations. But I'm sure that come Indian Wells and Miami and the rest of the season he'll unquestionably be the best player in the world - until somebody overtakes him. People were saying that he was vulnerable in Indian Wells and Miami last year, but look at what happened. He's going to turn it around and I am pretty sure it will be sooner rather than later."
Nadal, speaking after his own scratchy three-set victory over Philipp Kohlschreiber, agreed. "The way Roger has been playing the last four years it's impossible to be at your best every single week. The levels of the players at the top of the game are very close and if you are not 100 percent you won't win."
Murray faces Spain's Fernando Verdasco in the opening match today. He has beaten the world No 30 in both their previous meetings, in Melbourne 14 months ago and in St Petersburg in October. The world No 5, Nikolay Davydenko, who has lost three of his five matches against Murray, is a potential quarter-final opponent, while the No 4, David Ferrer, who is tied at 1-1 in head-to-head matches with the Scot, could lie in wait in the semi-finals.
The bottom half of the draw is even more formidable. Nadal, who lost five games in a row in losing the first set to Kohlschreiber and admitted he was some way below his best, is seeded to play Djokovic in the semi-finals.