Dubai – Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic had to work unexpectedly hard for the second day in a row before carrying the defence of his Dubai Open title into the semifinals on Thursday.
Djokovic looked puzzled early on by the unusual style of Florian Mayer, the world number 38 from Germany, and slipped to 3-5 down before finding some answers and accelerating to a 7-5, 6-1 victory.
The champion was also hampered by a need to adapt to speedier day-time tennis after coping with cooler, slower conditions during his three-set night-time struggle with the Spaniard Feliciano Lopez.
But it was also the crafty backspins of Mayer which caused the difficulty, snaking low and treacherously, making it difficult to attack, and proving particularly effective when mixed with changes of pace.
These, along with some well-timed ambushes at the net, and an attitude of relaxed obstinacy, got the surprising underdog to within sight of taking the first set.
“I couldn't predict the shots he played for the first eight or nine games,” said Djokovic. “But part of it was also my fault because I wasn't moving well.”
It was fully 40 minutes before Djokovic got a grip on the match. He played an indifferent opening service game to go a break down immediately, and almost went two breaks down before recovering from 15-40 in the third game.
Mayer then advanced without alarms to 3-1, 4-2, and 5-3, and during this phase the best that could be said for Djokovic was that Ä as befits a leading player who was recently in the best form of his life - he showed no signs of panicking.
That body language paid dividends. For when Mayer came to close the set out at 5-4, he morphed into a different man, full of doubts and mistakes.
He began with a double fault, and continued with three ground-stroking errors when previously he had been very solid in that department.
Worse still, when Mayer had to serve to save the set, at 5-6, he produced two double faults. It then just required Djokovic to make one brilliant retrieving lob on set point, and he had done enough to complete the escape.
He had also patiently and painstakingly created the conditions in which his opponent might implode. And Mayer did that more suddenly than anyone expected.
After that Djokovic was more like himself. He took five games in a row, almost converting a break point to make it six, broke again at the next opportunity, and hit the ball much more solidly during another five-game winning sequence, one which concluded the match.
“Tennis is a mental game and a lot of things depend on momentum,” said Djokovic. “So if you can use the momentum and make him feel you are on top of him, it works.”
Djokovic is seeded to meet Roger Federer, the Grand Slam record-holder, in Saturday's final, but first he must get past Tomas Berdych, the man who beat him on route to the Wimbledon final in July.
But the third-seeded Czech was not entirely convincing himself during a 7-5, 6-4 win against Philipp Petzschner, the German whose world ranking of 73 belies his talent.
Berdych was within one shot of allowing Petzschner to serve for the first set, and snatched the second set suddenly just when it seemed possible the match would go the full distance.
“I'm struggling a little bit,” said Berdych. “But I'm in the semis, so tough to complain about that.” – Sapa-AFP