Murray rallies to master challenge of Mirnyi

Some of the big names were falling like flies in the outback in the build-up to the Australian Open yesterday. Lleyton Hewitt and Marcos Baghdatis were among the on-court losers, while Justine Henin-Hardenne and Tim Henman joined what is threatening to become a steady flow of withdrawals from the season's first Grand Slam tournament.

For a while it seemed that Andy Murray would join the ranks of the disappointed. The 19-year-old Scot lost the first four games and the first set of his Qatar Open quarter-final against Max Mirnyi but recovered to win 2-6, 6-2, 6-2. Mirnyi, a 6ft 5in Belarussian nicknamed "the Beast" , made a lightning start, volleying impressively and giving Murray a taste of his own medicine with some cleverly disguised drop shots.

In trying to retrieve one drop shot Murray slipped and appeared to hurt his back. He served conservatively for the rest of the first set, but came out fighting in the second, breaking serve three times before levelling the match with a thumping backhand crosscourt winner. Once Murray had broken serve in the fourth game of the final set the outcome was rarely in doubt. The world No 17 now plays Nikolai Davydenko, the top seed, who won two matches yesterday. They last met in the fourth round of the US Open in September, the Russian winning in four sets.

However, it was not all good news for Murray. Late last night, partnered by his brother Jamie, the British No 1 suffered his only defeat in five matches in Doha this week when the duo lost in straight sets to Mikhail Youzhny and Nenad Zimonjic in the semi-finals of the doubles.

In the other singles semi-final today Ivan Ljubicic meets Robin Soderling, who sprang one of the surprises of the tournament by knocking out Baghdatis, last year's beaten finalist in the Australian Open.

Hewitt suffered a similar fate, making an unexpectedly early exit from his warm-up tournament. The Australian No 1 was knocked out of the Adelaide International by Russia's Igor Kunitsyn, the world No 94.

Yesterday's latest withdrawals from the Australian Open will have strengthened the arguments of those who say the year's first Grand Slam tournament comes too early in the year.

The short close season is being blamed for the growing number of absentees, with players having too little time to recover from injuries. Mark Philippoussis and Mary Pierce have already pulled out and Venus Williams, Anastasia Myskina and David Nalbandian are among those on the doubtful list.

The event's biggest blow was the withdrawal of Henin-Hardenne for " personal family reasons". The world No 1, who lost last year's final to Amélie Mauresmo, did not expand on her reasons, but the Belgian media reported that she was splitting up with her husband, Pierre-Yves.

Henman withdrew because of a knee injury, which he first suffered in Basle last October. The problem resurfaced before Christmas and a specialist has advised the former British No 1 to rest. He now expects to make his season's debut in Zagreb at the end of the month.

"It might be another seven to 10 days before I can do some serious training on it, so obviously competing in a Grand Slam is out of the question," Henman said yesterday.

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