The only time that Andy Murray has played Alexandr Dolgopolov was five years ago in a Davis Cup tie at the Odessa Lawn Tennis Club in a quiet suburb of the Black Sea resort. Murray won in straight sets in front of a few hundred spectators who had to dodge packs of stray dogs on their way into the tiny club. The clay court was surrounded by trees and the players cleared away leaves before the start of play.
Tomorrow the two men will come face to face in a more formidable setting. The 23-year-old Scot and the 22-year-old Ukrainian meet here in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, having come through their fourth-round matches in contrasting fashions yesterday.
Murray played some of the best tennis seen anywhere this year in crushing Austria's Jürgen Melzer 6-3, 6-1, 6-1, while Dolgopolov was responsible for the biggest shock of the tournament so far when he beat the world No 4, Robin Soderling, 1-6, 6-3, 6-1, 4-6, 6-2. In the previous round the world No 46 had knocked out Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in five sets.
Although Dolgopolov has been ranked in the world's top 100 for less than a year, he is used to going on court with the world's best players. His father, Oleksandar, coached Andrei Medvedev, a former world No 4 and the best player to come out of Ukraine. Dolgopolov Jnr accompanied his father on tour from the age of three and got to hit with players like Thomas Muster and Marc Rosset. "When there's a kid on tour, all the players try to play with him," he recalled. "I had a nice time."
Dolgopolov has made tennis his life. He used to have an interest in computer programming and developed his own online game, but now he does not even watch television or other sports. Despite having grown up around professionals he has an unorthodox style. He uses plenty of slice, has a powerful forehand and a big serve, and, like Murray, can flummox opponents with variations of spin and pace.
"He has a very different game," Murray said. "When he hits his double-handed backhand, he kind of chops down on the ball. It's almost like a slice. His whole game is just very unorthodox. He can hit big winners off his forehand. He can make some mistakes. He can hit high balls. He can definitely change the pace of the ball well. He's got a very fast arm. He doesn't look that big, but he can serve big. He's got a very quick action. He's just a very different guy to play against, so I have to be ready for everything."
Asked what he considered his own strengths to be, Dolgopolov said: "On the court I'm relaxed. I enjoy my tennis. I don't get too tight. I play really freely."
He thinks his game is similar to Murray's. "He also tries first of all to make his opponents feel uncomfortable," Dolgopolov said. "For sure he can hit some winners. It will be a pretty close match. He doesn't give you any cheap points. It's really tough to play him."
The Ukrainian said he had been surprised when they met in Odessa. "I was expecting more from him, because he didn't play very fast," he said. "I hadn't faced those kind of players in real life. I'd only seen them on TV, which makes it look much faster. When I went out there I realised that I was the one playing faster, but I made too many unforced errors and he just outplayed me."
Murray recalled the unlikely venue. "It was definitely different to playing here," he said. "There was hardly anyone there and not much of an atmosphere – and stray dogs. It was a strange place."
Dolgopolov was coached by his father until three years ago. He now works with an Australian, Jack Reader, and has been training here since early December, which has helped him to get used to the heat, which he does not like. He also prefers playing on clay. "Sometimes my legs hurt, and I don't want to stay on hard courts for too long," he said.
Murray has not lost a set so far and has dropped fewer games in the tournament (22) than any other player. Rafael Nadal, who beat Marin Cilic 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 last night to earn a quarter-final against David Ferrer, has also won 12 sets without reply but has lost 23 games.
Melzer was brushed aside in an hour and 44 minutes. Murray served well, returned beautifully and hit the ball out of the middle of his racket from start to finish. The world No 5 broke serve seven times and enticed his Austrian opponent into a regular flow of errors by retrieving his best shots.
Did Murray have any concern that he had not been severely tested yet? "No, but I know that I could lose the next match in straight sets if I don't play well. I'm not really worried about that. I would rather be in the position I am now.
"There have been a lot of games when I've had tough moments or I've been down on my serve and I've served well to come back into it, so I'm not worried about that. I would rather win every match as easily as possible, but I know that the next match is going to be tough. I'm ready for it."
Vera Zvonareva and Kim Clijsters, the world Nos 2 and 3, secured their places in the quarter-finals with victories over Iveta Benesova and Ekaterina Makarova respectively. Zvonareva now plays Petra Kvitova, while Clijsters faces Agnieszka Radwanska.
* Born 7 Nov 1988, Kiev, Ukraine
* World ranking 46 * Career high 39
* Singles career 25 wins, 30 losses
* Best Grand Slam results
Australian Open Quarter-final
French Open Third round
Wimbledon Second round
US Open First round
* Australian Open so far
R1 bt Mikhail Kukushkin (Kaz, ranked 63)
R2 bt Benjamin Becker (Ger, 55)
R3 bt Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (Fr, 13)
R4 bt Robin Soderling (Swe, 4)