x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Melzer shining while the big names fall

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The Austrian sees off intimidating Cilic Withdrawals and defeats for top seeds have given him an easier run than he expected William Johnson Chief Sports Writer DUBAI // Jurgen Melzer has struggled more than most in the recent past dealing with the booming serve and solid all-court game of Marin Cilic, an intimidating 6ft 6ins Croatian despite the most pleasant of off-court demeanours. Four times in five previous meetings - most recently in Zagreb earlier this month - Cilic, the world No 8, has got the better of the plucky Austrian but it was the notable exception to that trend that convinced Melzer that he has the ability to even the score one day.

A straight-sets victory in the final of the 2009 Vienna tournament in front of a delighted home crowd gave Melzer belief that he is capable taking the significant step up in class from "dangerous floater" in various draws around the world to genuine title contender. He is certainly setting his sights on a third career triumph and his biggest honour yet in the Dubai Tennis Championships, especially in view of the way the usual suspects for the big prizes have been falling alarmingly off the Aviation Club radar.

When the 31st-ranked Melzer first looked at the draw on Sunday morning, he anticipated that his reward for coming through a searching opening encounter with Italy's Simone Bolelli would be to provide some second-round cannon fodder for world No 1 Roger Federer as the Swiss plotted a route to a fifth success here. Federer's surprise withdrawal from what the Dubai resident regards as one of his two home events - Basle in his native Switzerland is the other - left Melzer with the much more manageable task of dealing with stand-in top seed Tommy Robredo which he accomplished in straight sets.

Discovering later that Wednesday evening that Andy Murray, runner-up to Federer in the Australian Open and a prospective semi-final opponent, had also been unexpectedly removed from his path, by Serbia's Janko Tipsarevic, the incentive to overcome Cilic became much greater. "I think beating him in Vienna made me believe that I could do it again," said Melzer, relishing the significance of a 7-6, 7-5 verdict which should bring him a career high ranking in the mid-20s next week.

He would be guaranteed that accomplishment if he goes all the way here by overcoming Russia's Mikhail Youzhny in today's semi-final and then coming out on top tomorrow in what will be a much lower-profile final than the organisers could have envisaged. "If I keep playing like this the other guy will have to play a really good match to get past me," Mel zer warned. "It is very important for me to keep beating the good guys and hopefully there is still more to come."

Few in a decent-sized Centre Court crowd would have given much for the prospects of Melzer after the first 20 minutes of what began as a one-sided encounter. Cilic was so much on top at 4-1 with break points for a 5-1 lead that Melzer looked destined for a humbling experience but the Austrian refused to buckle, held on to that crucial service game and then made what he conceded was a "lucky" break back to get himself back to parity.

He then had to save a set point in an exciting tie-break which he took 10-8 on his second point and he felt much more confident going into the second set which he took by virtue of a single break in the 12th game. Cilic realised that he had let slip a wonderful opportunity to secure his third title of the year and confirm the view that he is currently the hottest player on the Tour, having reached the Australian Open semi-finals in the only tournament he had failed to win.

"I think I could have gone a bit further here," he lamented. "I had my chances. It's not easy to understand but I'll be all right because I know I've had a good start to the year. "I have won a lot of matches already but you always need to push yourself to more and more." After next week's Davis Cup tie against Ecuador, Cilic is aiming to make more of an impact in the two important Masters Series events in the United States. Despite this setback, he will take some stopping in Indian Wells and Miami.

@Email:wjohnson@thenational.ae