Andy Murray still has some work to do after Roger Federer's desert win
The Swiss put Briton in his place with a straight sets win in Dubai but Murray goes to the North American swing in good heart
Losers' speeches do not generally become competitors who want to be champions. But Andy Murray's – of which there are probably too many for his liking – are as gracious as any, and he at least did not look devastated after succumbing to Roger Federer for the seventh time in 15 matches, defeat coming as it did 24 hours after he had beaten the world No1, Novak Djokovic.
"I had a couple of good wins this week against [Tomas] Berdych and Novak," he told the courtside interrogator in Dubai, "but it was always going to be tough against Roger. Obviously I would have liked to go one better."
Federer won his fifth desert title, 7-5, 6-4 in a little over an hour and a half. He has not won a grand slam title in more than two years but the odds on him adding to his glittering collection of 16 are shortening by the tournament. At 30, he is in the golden autumn of his career. Since he leapfrogged Murray into third in the world late last year, he has returned to near his best – and that is a daunting prospect for his contemporaries.
It is fair to say Murray has had the crowd with him most of the week but, even through the filter of television, it seemed there were more than a few deserters when he played the perennial darling of the game.
The temptation to regard this as a minor title ought to be resisted because, even though it carries only 500 ranking points, Rafael Nadal was the only notable absentee.
Murray ought to be able to lose a final to the other "greatest player of all time" without forensic examination of his disappointments in big matches – except, with the best will in the world, that will not happen until he wins his first major.
He is getting closer and he heads for Indian Wells and Miami with a sound, improving game and an on-court demeanour that is noticeably calmer since he took on Ivan Lendl as his coach in January. He beat Djokovic on Friday with as good a service game as he has produced in a long time but it let him down against Federer, even though the winner's 50% first-serve rate was only two points better.
For a while they put on a wonderful exhibition of tactical cat-and-mouse tennis, as Federer worked his way into position for those killing angled ground strokes from deep, and Murray harried him with his nagging defensive game.
There was little in the first set until the sixth game, when Federer had to save two break points to hold, but the quality rarely dipped.
Murray's first crisis arrived at 5-5 and 0-30 down. His serve, as well as his daring under pressure, got him to deuce but, forced to defend the net, he ballooned a reflex backhand long – and Federer served out to love to pick-pocket the set after 52 minutes.
It is tough for Murray to overcome the ingrained instinct that he has a better chance of winning from the back of the court, even on his own serve.
These fine calculations are often split-second ones and it is more comfortable for him to rely on trusted strategies. But players such as Federer eat out on caution. He did it to him most painfully in Melbourne two years ago and he did it again on Saturday.
Federer, a constant tinkerer with his weapons as he searches for ways to extend his glorious career, raided the net, mostly well-judged, and stretched Murray occasionally with drop shots. Murray hung in, though, and broke back in the second set, with a third a distinct possibility. Had he levelled proceedings, he knows he would have had a decent chance of out-lasting Federer, whose concentration has wavered ever so slightly towards the end of longer matches, most dramatically in the semi-final of the US Open against Djokovic.
When Murray dropped serve in the third game of the second with an ill-directed backhand, the energy must have rushed more urgently through Federer's legs. He held to love again for 3-1 and it was not looking good for Murray – but the Swiss's game now unravelled and Murray clawed his way back. He got a fighting break point with an inspired lob and hit an even better one to level at 3-3.
He battled through a break point to hold with his seventh ace but he was defending three more at the next time of asking and a netted backhand gave Federer the chance to serve for the match.
Caution no longer an option, Murray pressed him on the volley for 30-30. A rally of the highest quality ended with Murray's backhand dropping on the wrong side of the tape. Federer was a point from victory, but he overcooked a forehand for deuce and Murray still had fire in his eyes.
Federer finished it with a crisp, deep forehand that was just out of Murray's reach, a metaphor, some would say, for his journey in tennis so far.
Keep the faith and never fear, We'll keep the Red flag flying high, Cuz Man United will Never Die!!!
The greater the challenge the more Glory in overcoming it!
..NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS..