As the Dubai Open dwindles towards a conclusion, the preference of most neutral observers would be a final on Sunday between Roger Federer, the world No 1, and the 17-year-old Rafael Nadal, the youngest player in the top 50.
Nadal is due to play in the quarter-finals today against Mikhail Youzhny, of Russia, who eliminated Guillermo Coria, the Argentinian second seed, in the first round. This may be a testing match for the Spanish teenager, although the 21-year-old Muscovite has found it difficult to build on the fame he gained by bringing the Davis Cup to Russia for the first time in 2002.
Federer, the defending champion, advanced to the last eight by defeating Nadal's compatriot, Tommy Robredo, 6-3, 6-4. Federer and the Dutch No 8 seed, Sjeng Schalken, are the only two seeds remaining. The Swiss Wimbledon champion has now beaten Robredo in all five of their matches. Federer rarely looked in danger last night - Robredo was unable to convert any of six break points - but the obdurate Spaniard kept him on court for an hour and 28 minutes.
Robredo hit some spectacular winners in the rallies - his running backhand down the line in the fifth game of the opening set to create his first opportunity to break was one of the shots of the match - but his anxiety to serve well enough to put Federer on the back foot cost him dearly.
Three double-faults in the fourth game handed the momentum to Federer, who broke after a breathtaking rally on his second break point. Although Federer double-faulted to 30-40 when serving for the set at 5-3, he won the next three points with an ace, a service winner and an unstoppable forehand drive.
Robredo double-faulted to lose the fifth game of the second set, and after Federer held comfortably for 4-2 the match seemed as good as over. But Robredo staged a one-man Alamo in the fifth game, saving seven break points and battling through 10 deuces before converting his fifth game point.
Federer held to 15 for 5-3 and did not seem averse to his opponent winning the next four points before making the kill. Robredo saved the first match point, at 40-0 - this time with a superb running forehand down the line - but his parting shot was a forehand over the baseline on the second match point.
"I feel like I'm finding my rhythm," Federer said without fear of contradiction.
It was guaranteed that there would be at least one unseeded finalist from the moment that the seventh-seeded Paradorn Srichaphan, of Thailand, lost his second-round match against the unseeded Ivan Ljubicic, of Croatia, 7-6, 4-6, 7-5, in the heat of the afternoon.
Srichaphan, who is carrying an injury to his left ankle, admitted he was fortunate to have an easy first-round match: his Slovakian opponent, Dominik Hrbaty, who won the Marseilles title last Sunday, retired at 4-3 down in the first set on Wednesday, explaining that he had a viral infection. Although Srichaphan's ankle injury has troubled him since the Australian Open in January, he played his part in an exciting contest against Ljubicic, both men looking weary towards the end of a duel lasting two hours and 25 minutes.
Ljubicic advanced to the semi-finals last year, losing to Federer. After a close opening set against Srichaphan yesterday, the Croatian edged the tie-break, 8-6. The first six games of the second set went with serve. Srichaphan took a six-minute time-out during the seventh game to have his injured ankle iced. When play resumed, Ljubicic lost his serve for the first time, sending down a double fault on break point.
Ljubicic made the decisive break at 5-5 in the final set. He now plays the Spanish left-hander Feliciano Lopez.