Using a tournament that rewards the winner with nearly £250,000 and 500 ranking points as an opportunity to experiment with your game is the sort of luxury that Andy Murray affords himself these days.
The world No 4 lost 7-6, 4-6, 6-4 to Serbia's Janko Tipsarevic in the second round of the Barclays Dubai Championships here last night but was far from disconsolate after admitting that the event had been a useful exercise in his preparations for bigger challenges ahead, starting with next month's Masters Series tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami.
Murray played more serve-and-volley against Tipsarevic than is his custom, went for bigger shots and hit fewer sliced backhands. While he thumped plenty of winners there were, inevitably, more mistakes. Tipsarevic, the world No 39, became the lowest-ranked player to beat Murray since Juan Monaco, the No 58, knocked him out of the Rome Masters last April. That was also the last tournament in which Murray failed to progress beyond the second round.
Defeat will cut short Murray's stay at the £2,200-per-night Burj Al Arab, which bills itself as the world's most luxurious hotel and is where the tournament puts up its biggest names. However, such matters are relative when you consider that the appearance fees for the top seeds here are believed to exceed the winner's prize-money. It would be interesting to know what the organisers now feel about their investment in Murray.
Having rested for 10 days after losing to Roger Federer in the Australian Open final, Murray arrived understandably short of fitness and without much practice under his belt. He admitted that he had considered withdrawing from the tournament, "but obviously I'd get a lot of stick for not playing".
In his first match Murray was short of breath and was troubled by numerous aches and pains. His body coped much better with the two and a half hours he spent on court against Tipsarevic, but the 25-year-old Serb, a big-hitting baseliner, has a game that can trouble the best. This was his third win in six meetings with Murray.
Tipsarevic was more consistent in the first set and recovered to win the tie-break 7-3 after playing a sloppy game when he had the chance to serve out at 5-4. Murray made the only break of the second set in the opening game and set up a decider which featured some exhilarating tennis.
Murray trailed 3-0 and failed to take five break points when Tipsarevic served at 3-1, but broke back with a superb backhand cross-court winner when the Serb served at 5-3. From 30-15 up in the next game, however, Murray netted two forehands before Tipsarevic secured a place in the quarter-finals with a smash. Murray slammed his racket on the ground in frustration.
"It was obviously disappointing to lose, but I tried some things out and I think it was a good learning experience for me," Murray said. "I would like to have won, but it's not the end of the world. If it was a Slam or something my tactics and my game style would have been a bit different."
He added: "When I'm getting ready for the Slams and the big events, you need to try some things. If you ask someone like Roger Federer how he gets ready, it's not necessarily about winning the week before or playing your best the week before. It's playing your best at the right times of the year."
Novak Djokovic and Marin Cilic made the quarter-finals but were in patchy form against Viktor Troicki and Stefan Koubek respectively, while Nikolay Davydenko retired against Michael Berrer with a painful wrist. With the season less than two months old, five of the world's top seven players are currently hors de combat.
* Ricardas Berankis, Lithuania's leading player, said yesterday that he would be fit to play in next week's Davis Cup tie against Britain in Vilnius despite suffering from sinusitis and a back injury that forced him to retire during a qualifying match for this week's tournament at Delray Beach.