Dubai - Andy Murray has followed his climb above Rafael Nadal to world number three with a chequered but foundation-laying straight-sets win over Gilles Muller to begin his bid to win the Dubai Open title.
The Scot's 6-4, 7-5 win over the Luxemburger illustrated how far the former Wimbledon and US Open champion has come in the one year since returning to the tour after a serious back operation.
It also showed that Murray's return of serve and his trademark containing groundstrokes - almost always the bedrock of his game - were in good order, suggesting he has a solid basis from which to build his form over the week.
"I made him work very hard on his service games. That was something I wanted to try to do from early on in the match," said Murray.
"And I think in his second service game, although I lost the game, there were a lot of deuces and it was good to sort of build a bit of pressure and make him realise that I was going to make a lot of balls on the return games and make it very hard for him. That was probably the most pleasing thing."
That game contained 11 deuces, went on for 30 points and lasted more than 20 minutes, after which Muller's flow of aces, which had already reached eight by that stage, largely dried up.
Murray held his next service game to love in only three minutes, and when Muller was called upon to serve again so quickly he was unable to escape being broken a second time.
Murray achieved that break with an extraordinary lob-pass combination.
He somehow got a racket to a very good serve and ballooned it high and deep, then scampered across court to block a fierce smash back for a highly improbable winner. His fist was more celebration than expression of attitude.
Curiously when Murray came to close out the set he delivered three double faults and had to save two break-back points.
Similarly, in the second set at 5-4, he served a double fault and this time allowed Muller to break back. But his concluding two games were impeccable
The performance underlined that, after his run to the Australian Open final last month, Murray knows he is a genuine Grand Slam contender again, something he often did not feel during his long drawn-out return to full fitness last year.
"Mentally I feel completely different, both in my body and in my mind, though there are still things I can do better," he said.
"Last year even if I was playing well I was doubting a lot of things - confidence in my body and in my game. Even if I was playing well I didn't feel like I was. I feel much better at this stage than I did last year."
Murray now plays Joao Sousa, the world number 50 from Portugal, and has a seed-free route to the semi-finals after Marcos Baghdatis, the former Australian Open finalist from Cyprus, overcame David Goffin, the number eight seed from Belgium, 6-2, 7-5.
Earlier, another title contender, Tomas Berdych, the third-seeded Czech who has been twice a finalist here, also started with a straight sets win, 7-6 (7-2), 6-4 over Jeremy Chardy of France.
He now plays Simone Bolelli, who in Australia last month became part of the first Italian men's pair in almost 60 years to win Grand Slam title.
Results from the ATP Dubai Open on Tuesday (x denotes seeding):
Novak Djokovic (SRBx1) bt Vasek Pospisil (CAN) 6-4, 6-4
Tomas Berdych (CZE x4) bt Jeremy Chardy (FRA) 7-6 (7/2), 6-4
Sergiy Stakhovsky (UKR) bt Lukas Rosol (CZE) 4-6, 6-1, 6-4
Marsel Ilhan (TUR) bt Alexander Zverev (GER) 6-1, 7-6 (7/4)
Simone Bolelli (ITA) bt Lucas Pouille (FRA) 6-3, 6-3
Feliciano Lopez (ESP) bt James Ward (GBR) 6-4, 6-4
Borna Coric (CRO) bt Malek Jaziri (TUN) 5-7, 6-3, 6-3
Roberto Bautista (ESP x7) bt Dominic Thiem (AUT) 6-3, 6-2
Andy Murray (GBRx3) bt Gilles Muller (LUX) 6-4, 7-5
Marcos Baghdatis (CYP) bt David Goffin (BEL x8) 6-2, 7-5