Matches involving Roger Federer usually finish in much the same way. The winner strolls calmly to the net, shakes hands with his disconsolate opponent and gives him a consoling pat on the back. That was the way the world No 1's first-round match in the Barclays Dubai Championships ended here last night, but this time it was his opponent, Andy Murray, who was playing the part of the nonchalant winner.
If Murray looked a picture of calm, the British No 1 knew that his 6-7, 6-3, 6-4 victory was one of the best of his career. Federer did not have a single break point as Murray demonstrated what a big improvement he has made on his serve since the end of last year. Recovering from the disappointment of losing the first set tie-break, his mixture of cool defence and sudden quickening of the tempo forced Federer into a series of errors.
While Federer had the benefit of local knowledge – he spends three months a year in Dubai and had won 24 of his previous 25 matches on these courts while Murray was making his debut – it was outweighed by the difference in the sharpness of the two men. Murray, who has won two titles this year, has played in two tournaments since the Australian Open; Federer, whose only previous appearance had been in Melbourne, has been skiing and made a trip to St Petersburg to collect an award.
You can count on the fingers of one hand the currently active players who have beaten Federer at least twice and have a positive head-to-record against him. Murray now joins that elite group, having also beaten the Swiss in their last meeting, in Cincinnati 18 months. Federer won their only previous match in the final in Bangkok in 2005.
"The most important thing is just to believe that you can win," Murray said afterwards. "I've watched him play so many times and he's obviously a special player, possibly the greatest of all time. Too many times some guys almost try to play too well against him.
"It's really important to stay patient and not make rash decisions early in the match. That was one of the keys today, though if he's playing his best he can start hitting winners from all over the court."
The first Monday of tournaments outside the Grand Slam events are usually played in front of half-empty stands, but the centre court here was almost full. Support for the two men was evenly divided: Federer is a huge favourite in Dubai, but the British expatriate community were also out in force.
A balmy evening with little wind provided perfect conditions and both men hit the ground running. Despite going to a tie-break, the first set lasted just 46 minutes, with only one deuce point, on Murray's serve in the fifth game. Murray upped the pace in the tie-break and led 5-2, but lost six of the next seven points as his level dropped.
There had been plenty of reasons for encouragement, however, and the Scot broke serve in the sixth game of the second set, hitting a superb forehand cross-court winner as Federer attacked the net. Murray served out for the set and broke again – to love – in the fifth game of the decider. Federer won only two points in Murray's last four service games and the Scot won the final game to love with three service winners and a 134mph ace. Overall Murray lost only five of the 53 points on which his first serve found the target.
Murray, who now plays Spain's Fernando Verdasco, said: "In terms of my serving that was a pretty special day. I've worked on my serve a lot. To beat Federer in a three-set match and not have a break point against you is probably something that hasn't happened to him for a long time."
As for his low-key demeanour at the end, Murray said: "I've got so much respect for him. I'm obviously delighted that I won, but to get a chance just to play him is an honour. From growing up in Dunblane to having a chance to play against someone like him in front of 7,000 or 8,000 people is pretty special. I didn't want to let it get too emotional because I'm still in the middle of a tournament."
This defeat, following his mauling by Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals of the Australian Open, constitutes Federer's worst start to a season for five years. It was also the first time he has lost in the first round since his defeat by Dominik Hrbaty in Cincinnati in 2004. Federer said he had paid for his lack of tournament play and described his forehand – widely acknowledged as the greatest shot in the game – as "awful". While giving credit to Murray, he said he was surprised at how little the Scot's game had changed since he first played him and questioned how much progress he would make playing such a defensive game.
"It works for him, but he's going to have to grind very hard for the next few years if he's going to keep playing this way," he said. "He stands way back in the court. He has to do a lot of running and he tends to wait a lot for his opponent to make a mistake. I gave him the mistakes today, but I think that overall, over a 15-year career, you want to look to win a point more often. That's what's served me well over the years, but who knows? He might surprise us all and do it for 20 years."
Murray v Federer
*September 2005 Bangkok, final
Federer won 6-3, 7-5. In his first tour final Murray, 18, gave a good account of himself in a close straight-sets defeat.
*August 2006 Cincinnati, second round
Murray won 7-5, 6-4. The Scot became the only player other than Rafael Nadal to beat the world No 1 in 2006.