HANS PUNZ / APA / AFP
Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic remain on the collision course for their first major meeting of the season after both won through to the Qatar Open semi-finals on Thursday.
In blustery, chilly conditions, world number one Murray overcame the stiffest test, beating Spain’s Nicolas Almagro 7-6 (7/4), 7-5 in a hard-fought contest, to secure a 27th consecutive victory.
Djokovic, the world number two, eased through to the last four, beating evergreen veteran Radek Stepanek in a far more straightforward match, 6-3, 6-3.
The best two players in the world are now favourites to clash in Saturday’s final, but it is by no means certain and this was the second time this week Murray was stretched, following a tough victory in the last round against Austria’s Gerald Melzer.
On Thursday, Murray made 18 unforced errors before finally triumphing against the world number 44 from Spain.
He lost his first service game of the match and was visibly irritated about the quality of his tennis on a number of occasions.
Murray broke back in the eighth game of the opening set before securing it on a tie-break.
But his troubles were far from over.
Increasingly agitated and error-prone on court, he made the decisive break of serve in the 11th game of the second set after first squandering three break points.
But serving for the match he first had to save two break points, which summed up the Scotsman’s evening.
“Very tough match, very close both sets,” said Murray who has won 55 sets to just six dropped in his winning run on the ATP Tour.
“It was hard conditions today, very windy, hard to get into a rhythm.”
The victory means Murray now stands just five behind Rafael Nadal’s mark of 32 consecutive tour victories. Djokovic holds the all-time record of 43 wins in a row set between 2010 and 2011.
Djokovic saw off Stepanek with ease to deny his Czech opponent the chance to make history.
If the 38-year-old Stepanek had beaten the Serb, he would have become the oldest player to qualify for an ATP semi-final in almost 25 years, since a 40-year-old Jimmy Connors reached the last four in San Francisco in 1993.
“It’s exciting, you obviously want to start the year off in the best possible way, that’s three wins out of three,” said Djokovic immediately afterwards.
The victory secured a 12th straight win for the Serb against Stepanek and extended his set-winning streak in Qatar to 16.
Djokovic won last year’s title without dropping a set, and he is yet to do so this year.
He will next meet Spain’s Fernando Verdasco who won through easily 6-2, 7-5, against another veteran, Ivo Karlovic, the last man to beat Djokovic in Doha, back in 2015.
Djokovic and Verdasco met in last year’s tournament, with the former number one dropping just four games.
The semi-final line-up will be completed later Thursday when Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the number three and five seeds in Doha, face off.