Andy Murray visited the Dubai English Speaking School here yesterday morning, where he answered questions from a hall full of young children. Most wanted to know why he became a tennis player or how he liked to relax – they shrieked with delight when he said he loved playing on his Nintendo Wii – but one pupil wanted to know which opponent he feared most.
With Roger Federer probably uppermost in Murray's mind after he was drawn to play him today in the first round of the Barclays Dubai Championships, the Scot might have been expected to nominate the world No 1. He chose Rafael Nadal. "He gets to every ball, doesn't make many mistakes and tries to win every point," Murray said.
When asked what he thought was the best match he had played, Murray ignored his victory over Federer when they last met, in Cincinnati 18 months ago – the Swiss won their only previous meeting, in Bangkok in 2005 – and named his fourth-round encounter with Nadal in last year's Australian Open. "I lost in five sets, but I think it was the best match I've played in," he said.
The British No 1 is clearly relaxed about his debut here. "I was sleeping when the draw was made," he told journalists. "I got a text message. I looked at it and went back to sleep. I wasn't panicking or worrying about it."
Ranked No 12 in the world, Murray was always going to be at the mercy of the draw at a tournament which has attracted one of the strongest fields ever assembled outside a Grand Slam or Masters Series event. The 32-strong line-up includes nine men ranked higher, including the world's top seven players. The eight seeds are decided by the world rankings.
"I'm really excited," Murray said. "It's not often you get the chance to play against somebody who could possibly be the best tennis player ever. It's a tough draw for sure, but it's tough for him also. In terms of ranking we couldn't have had worse draws. He's beaten much better players than me in bigger matches than tomorrow. It's important for me to see how my game matches up against the best player in the world. Win or lose I can learn a lot from it."
Murray arrived four days ago, accompanied by his coach, Miles Maclagan, and fitness trainer, Matt Little; Federer has been here for a fortnight. The world No 1, who divides his time between a Dubai apartment and his Swiss home, has not played since the Australian Open in January.
"I've been taking it easy," he said. "I went skiing and then I went to St Petersburg for the Laureus awards [where he was named World Sportsman of the Year for the fourth year in a row]. Then I came here and got ready, not only for this tournament but also for the whole season."
Murray went out in the first round in Australia, losing to the eventual finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, but the British No 1 has won tournaments this year, in Doha and Marseilles. Federer lost in the semi-finals in Melbourne to the eventual winner, Novak Djokovic, after his pre-tournament preparations were hampered by a stomach virus.
"I'm just happy to be back playing," Federer said as he looked ahead to an event he has won four times. "It's only my second tournament in four months so I'm just excited to be back and feeling healthy after a struggle in Australia. Hopefully this time around I'll feel better on the court again. I knew the draw would be tough, but this one is particularly so because my opponent is so highly ranked. He's obviously on the rise. "
Murray said he had been pleased with his new entourage of coaches and fitness experts following his split with Brad Gilbert last year. "I feel fitter and stronger. I've put on two or three kilos in weight, which is good. I played well in Doha, decent in Australia, where I had chances to win against Tsonga, and I was very good in Marseilles after the first couple of matches. I'm definitely enjoying working this way more than the way I did before.
"Winning tournaments gives you a lot of confidence. I won two in the whole of last year and I've won two already this year. That's been a good start. I want to stay fit the whole year. As you get older it becomes so important to stay fit and strong."
Murray said he had been working hard on his flexibility, which would be important in the coming weeks, especially as he suffered a succession of injuries in the equivalent period last year. "There were some things I felt I needed to address on the fitness side," he said. "I didn't spend enough time with the fitness trainer last year. I know as I get to 22 or 23 I'm going to get stronger. Right now I need to do that by working really hard."
Federer and Murray are in arguably the easier part of the draw. The bottom half includes Nadal, who faces Germany's Philipp Kohl-schreiber, Djokovic, Andy Roddick, making his debut here, and Richard Gasquet.
The women's event finished on Saturday night. Elena Dementieva, the world No 11, beat a fellow Russian, Svetlana Kuz-netsova, the world No 3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 for her ninth career title.