DUBAI // A match which had become a stroll at 6-4, 5-0 almost slipped away from Novak Djokovic, the defending Dubai champion, last night as the Serbian admitted to losing focus when on the brink of victory. In the end, Djokovic, seeded two but top-ranked in this showpiece event after Roger Federer's late withdrawal, gratefully accepted his third match point to win 6-4 6-4 and prevent his gallant opponent Guillermo Garcia-Lopez from completing a remarkable second-set fightback.
Garcia-Lopez, ranked 47 in the world, looked destined for a humbling exit as Djokovic turned up the gas after a tight opening set. A visit from the ATP Tour trainer after the first three games of the second set strengthened the view that the underdog was on his last legs, but the Spaniard rallied in every sense of the word. After 15 tide-turning minutes they were back on serve and Djokovic was clearly concerned that an unwanted deciding set was coming menacingly into view.
"It was not pleasant going from 50 to 54 and him serving to get back into the match," said a relieved Djokovic. "But it was all my fault. I think I lost the focus. "But it's my first match outdoors since Australia, so I'm still getting used to the conditions." That next match tomorrow will be against his fellow Serbian Victor Troicki who qualified for his third clash of the year - and his fourth in all - against his more famous compatriot by overcoming the veteran German wild card Rainer Schuettler 6-3, 6-4.
Djokovic, who has won the last two of their duels in Belgrade and Beijing, said of the 35th-ranked Troicki: "We get on great off the court because we've known each other for 10 years or so and played in the same European Junior championship teams. "But as soon as you step on the court you want to win, no matter who is on the other side of the net and I believe I can win this match if I am on my level. I'm really hoping this is going to be my week."
Djokovic's chances of retaining a title for the first time in 17 career attempts are considerably improved not only by the absence of the four-time Dubai champion Federer, but also of two other recent winners here - Andy Roddick and Rafael Nadal - as well as a fourth member of the world's top seven, Juan Martin Del Potro, the US Open champion. "It's unfortunate for the supporters when top players pull out but that happens the way the schedule is at the moment,"added the Serb.
Andy Murray, third seed and one of the favourites to take Djokovic's title, came safely through a curious first round encounter, beating the Russian qualifier Igor Kunitsyn 6-2, 6-3. Murray's ultimately comfortable despatching of the world No 111 will be remembered for a remarkable second game which lasted nearly 25 minutes and contained 14 deuces before the Briton took it on his ninth break point.
The talented Scot, no stranger to niggling injuries during his short but successful career, looked uncomfortable throughout the 101-minute match - his first since losing the final of the Australian Open to Roger Federer a month ago - as he anxiously kept an eye on a left knee he jarred early on. Murray will next face the winner of the match between Italy's Andreas Seppi and Serbia's Janko Tipsarevic as he seeks to add this Middle East honour to the two he has earned in Doha.