Novak Djokovic appears to have found a way to reverse the normal process that regulates strenuous physical activity. The longer his matches go, the stronger he appears to get. Djokovic used that talent today to become the first man in Open era history to win the Australian Open three years in a row, with a convincing triumph over his emerging rival, Andy Murray.
Djokovic won it, going away: 6-7 (2), 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-2. And he won it despite a start so slow that it seemed nearly providential that he didn’t find himself down two sets to none. “So what?” a Djokovic partisan might say to that. “He just would have won it in five then.”
Amen to that. All I can say is that despite the exception that seems to prove the rule—Murray’s five-set win over Djokovic in the U.S. Open final last year—Nole’s rivals are fortunate that the format puts a cap on five sets. If tennis were a best-of-seven, nine, or 13 set affair, this guy probably would be invincible.
Djokovic’s sixth Grand Slam title did not come easily. Contrary to the expectations of nearly everyone, we didn’t see a service break until deep into the third set (and nearly three hours into the match), when a gradual erosion of Murray’s effectiveness paid off with a break for Djokovic. But when the Scot’s wheels fell off, they came off quickly, and all at once.
Murray, who had survived a four-hour semifinal with Roger Federer, came out breathing fire, raining down aces and winners hit from the backcourt to force the first set to a tiebreaker. Djokovic, meanwhile, was sluggish and irritable from the outset, finding fault with his shoes as well as his forehand and serve, which let him down in the first point of the tiebreaker. Djokovic double-faulted, and never put a first serve into play before losing it badly.
It’s dodgy to call anything that happens in the first hour of a long and competitive match a turning point. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that things might have turned out differently had Murray capitalized on any of the three break points he held in the second game of the second set. The facts: Djokovic was overrun in the tiebreaker, after which Murray held the first game of the second set at love. Then Murray pinned Djokovic down in the second game, 0-40.
But once Djokovic crawled up out of that hole—the critical shot was a volley winner that brought him to deuce, and prefigured the role net work would play in this match—he seemed to relax. He dialed in his game for the rest of the set and forced a tiebreaker. The first four points went on serve, but with Murray serving, a feather drifted down in front of him after he missed his first serve. Murray diligently removed the object, but proceeded to hit a double fault.
After two quick holds by Djokovic, Murray was unable to hold the second of his serves and fell behind 3-6. Djokovic won the set when Murray flubbed a backhand drop shot.
But the wear and tear still didn’t show on Murray through the early stages of the third set. Each man held with relative ease for the first seven games; at that point, Djokovic was 0-7 in break points, Murray 0-3.
Djokovic made his move in the eighth game, with Murray serving. He ended a great rally with a massive inside-out forehand winner, won the next point with a prodigious drive volley, and hit 40-0 when he ended an exchange with a forehand cross-court winner. Murray fended off the first two break points, but Djokovic cashed in the third when the world No. 3 drove a forehand into the net.
With a 5-3 lead, Djokovic hit a higher gear and ripped through his next service game to bag the set. Of interest: To that point, Murray had made his way to the net 12 times, winning eight of those points. But Djokovic had approached a full 31 times, and made good on an outstanding 27 of those opportunities. So much for the “new” offensive-minded Murray—Djokovic’s greater willingness and ability to take the forecourt was the most eye-opening aspect of this match.
Although Murray held the first game of the fourth set and even had a break point in the second game (which he was unable to convert), the floodgates were open. Djokovic won eight of the nine games played following the first break of the match, resulting in a 5-1 fourth set lead. The rest was a mere formality, as Djokovic wrapped it up in three hours and 40 minutes when he converted his first match point thanks to a Murray backhand error.
In all fairness, Murray struggled with some physical issues, including (apparently) blisters that required a trainer’s attention and some sort of hamstring pull. Federer, with his quicksilver game, probably took a lot more out of Murray than anyone thought. But even a fully fit and well-rested Murray—or Rafael Nadal, or Federer—faces a daunting mission these days if he challenges Djokovic to a war of attrition.