It appears that the phrase "post-Melbourne slump" can be safely deleted from Andy Murray's vocabulary in 2012. Murray came here believing there would be no repeat of the prolonged Australian Open hangover he suffered in the past two years, and the 24-year-old Scot proved his point yesterday with an emphatic 6-2, 7-5 victory over Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals of the Dubai Duty Free Championships.
In becoming the first player to defeat the world No 1 this year, Murray showed commendable determination to maintain the renewed focus he had displayed in Melbourne. In today's final he will face Roger Federer, four times a champion here, for the first time for nearly 16 months.
Yesterday's victory was a reminder of the progress Murray made in Australia following the appointment of Ivan Lendl as his coach. Apart from a nervous wobble as Djokovic broke when the world No 4 served for the match, Murray maintained a high level throughout. A couple of early grimaces when he clutched a sore knee were the only times Murray looked anything other than positive. There were no running conversations with nobody in particular at the back of the court and no gesticulating towards his entourage.
"I fought for every single point and made it really, really tough," Murray said, remembering how close he had come to beating Djokovic by playing with similar intensity in Melbourne this year and in Rome last year. "In the second set he started going for more and making mistakes because of that."
Murray added: "I'm sure Novak knows that if he wants to beat me, he's going to have to fight 110 per cent and play long, long points. That's why you need to go in against the top guys every time with that attitude."
The match, played in considerably cooler conditions than Murray had experienced in his previous three matches, generated a lively atmosphere. A clear majority of the capacity 5,000 crowd were behind Djokovic, who was going for a fourth successive title here. Nevertheless, the frequent chants of "Nole! Nole!" usually brought a good response from Murray's supporters.
Given the quality of the two players' returns, Djokovic had identified their serves as a key to the outcome. Murray was immediately into his rhythm, hitting big first serves on his first four points. By the end he had lost only six of the 40 points played when his first serve found the target.
Aggressive throughout, Murray forced Djokovic into a steadily increasing flow of mistakes. The match turned after Djokovic had hit two aces at 2-3 to go 30-0 up. The world No 1 had won the first 10 points on his serve, but made four unforced errors in succession to give Murray the first break. The Scot took the set by breaking again two games later in a blaze of attacking strokes.
A third successive break gave Murray the early advantage in the second set. The only time he faltered was when he got nervous and was broken at 5-3. The last time he had failed to serve out for a victory was against Djokovic in Rome last year, but he kept any thoughts of that defeat firmly out of his mind.
Having gone 6-5 up courtesy of four unreturned serves, Murray secured victory in the following game with his fourth break. It was his first victory over Djokovic in a completed match for nearly three years, the Serb having retired with an injury when trailing in the second set as Murray won their Cincinnati Masters final last year. "He was the better player today," Djokovic admitted. "He was serving really well. I made a lot of unforced errors when it was important. He always makes you play an extra shot. He was returning really well."
Murray said he hoped the win would "set me up well for the year". He added: "Confidence in tennis – and almost any individual sport – is so important. A win like tonight will do that no harm."
The Scot feels he is still some way off his best but looked better prepared than Djokovic. Both men returned to competition this week following the Australian Open, but while Murray came here from an 11-day training block in Miami, Djokovic spent much of last month skiing, catching up with friends and collecting an award in London.
Federer, who saved the only one break point against him this week in his opening match, beat Juan Martin del Potro 7-6, 7-6, winning the second tie-break 8-6 despite having trailed 6-2.
Murray had said he would prefer to play Federer. He has beaten the Swiss in eight of their 14 matches. It was after Murray beat him in the first round here four years ago that Federer said he was surprised the Scot had continued to play so defensively. "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 at the time. On yesterday's evidence, Murray is in the mood to keep grinding for as long as it takes.