Why Federer-Murray is the best rivalry

If you're going to send in the subs to play a big final, you could do a heck of a lot worse than the two buckaroos who will play for the Dubai title, Andy Murray and the all-time Grand Slam singles title champ, Roger Federer.

It sure beats watching Novak Djokovic beat up on beleaguered Rafael Nadal yet again, right?

Of course, Nadal wasn't in Dubai to challenge Djokovic, or anyone else. He may have regretted that decision to skip the Arabian shootout when he saw how easily Murray -- whom Nadal beat in three Grand Slam semis last year -- crushed Djokovic.

On the other hand, Federer licks his chops when he gets Nadal in his sights on a fast hard court, so maybe it was a good idea to fight shy of this event and leave it to the two other members of the big four to vie for the prize.

In some ways, it's a welcome decision here because Federer-Murray is the rivalry nobody talks about. (There's only so much ink, real or digital, that anyone can expend on rivalries.) But I can think of at least three reasons it may be the most interesting:

1. The head-to-head: Murray leads the rivalry 8-6, and there's nothing misleading about that stat. Incredibly, all their meetings have been on hard courts (as is the upcoming Dubai final) and neither man has been able to dominate since the beginning.

Murray had a four-match win streak spanning 2008 and 2009, but Federer responded immediately with three wins of his own. It's a much less lopsided H2H than, say, Federer versus Nadal, or Nadal versus Djokovic.

2. The matchup: The first big question in this one will be: Are Murray's defensive and counterpunching skills up to the task of blunting Federer's offense? But there's a related question in play, too, which is: Is Federer's return game good enough to worry Murray?

In the semis, Federer had six break-point opportunities against Juan Martin del Potro but was unable to convert any of them. Murray, by contrast, made good on four of the five break points he saw in his win over Djokovic.

The good news for Federer fans is that the ATP No. 3 allowed DelPo no break points at all, while Murray allowed Djokovic three. (He converted one.)

3. The stakes: This is where the mental and emotional factors may come into play. Although this can't be called a "must win" for either man, Federer needs to reaffirm that he can win big matches during the regular season (he does just fine at the ATP World Tour Finals).

Federer hasn't beaten a fellow member of that big four in the final of a non-major elimination tournament since his win over Djokovic in Basel (Federer's hometown tournament) in October 2010.

For Murray, this match provides an opportunity to build on the momentum he accumulated in Australia, where he slugged it out with Djokovic in a grueling five-set war. The brutal final (Djokovic over Nadal) overshadowed that match, but that semifinal performance by Murray rekindled his self-belief. And unlike last year, when Murray went into a terrible slump after losing the Australian Open final to Djokovic, the Scot hasn't missed a beat in Dubai, his first tournament since Melbourne.

Murray hit No. 3 for a brief period last fall, only to see Federer regain that spot with a strong late-season drive. If Murray can handle Federer in Dubai after eliminating Djokovic, he'll have every right to feel like he's right on the rear bumper of the top two players in the world, and that constitutes progress in his continuing effort to win that elusive, first Grand Slam title.