Bending But Not Breaking

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MELBOURNE—Novak Djokovic has been called a tennis contortionist for his ability to twist his body and reach seemingly unreachable shots. The metaphor can be extended to the way he wins many of his Grand Slam matches: Nole bends—sometimes to the point where you’re not sure he’ll be able to straighten back up again—but he very rarely breaks.

The best example of Djokovic’s roundabout path to success at this year’s Australian Open was, of course, his fourth-round, five-set win over Stan Wawrinka (in retrospect, the high point of the two weeks). That night he fell behind a set and 2-5 before rallying. In the final tonight against Andy Murray, Djokovic, agitated at having squandered five break point chances during the first set, played a slack and unhappy tiebreaker to lose it. A few minutes later, he was unhappier still as he went down 0-40 on his serve. Djokovic was tense and out of sorts, slipping on the court, glaring at his player’s box, berating himself on changeovers, and struggling with his some of his favorite shots, including his patented defensive backhand. 

In other words, Nole had his old friend Andy right where he wanted him. 

As he did against Wawrinka, Djokovic righted himself in time to avoid going down two sets to love. Which was a good idea: No player in the Open era has come back from two sets down to win the Australian Open (it’s never been done at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, either).

As often happens when you carry a No. 1 player’s aura with you on court, Novak got a little help with his comeback. Up 15-40 on Djokovic's serve at 1-0 in the second set, Murray had a look at a mid-court backhand that he could have smacked. He had smacked similar shots for winners in his last match, against Roger Federer. Instead, Murray, thinking that Djokovic was out of sorts and ripe for a mistake, pushed it back and hoped for an error. Djokovic chose that moment to stop being out of sorts. He saved three break points and held with a confident forehand attack. In those five minutes, the match had changed. Djokovic was on his feet again.

“There were a few turning points in the match,” Djokovic said. “Maybe one of them was the second game in the second set when I was 0-40 against the breeze. He missed a few shots and I managed to have that crucial hold. After that I just felt mentally a little bit lighter and more confident on the court than I’d done in the first hour or so."

A somber but not devastated Murray agreed. “At this level, it can come down to just a few points here or there,” he said. He even managed to twist his mouth into a smile or two during his press conference—talk about a contortionist. “My biggest chance was at the beginning of the second set; didn’t quite get that. When Novak had his chance in the third, he got his.”

Murray boiled it down succinctly. He didn’t take his chance in the second set; Djokovic did take his, when Murray served at 3-4 in the third. To that point, the two players had been cruising on serve. The game’s best returners somehow combined to hold their first 31 service games (Murray speculated that the surface, which was quicker here this year, helped in that regard.) In the 32nd game, though, they woke everyone up by staging a 36-shot rally, which Djokovic ended with a forehand winner. Fired up, he hit another forehand winner for 0-40 and broke two points later. 

Murray, who had a blister on his left foot bandaged after the second set, was toast. Struggling to push off, his serve lost pace and his baseline play grew ragged. He finished with 46 errors against 29 winners and won just 46 percent of his of second-serve points. Djokovic won 66 percent of his own points on second balls, and did much more with that shot in general. 

Worse from Murray’s point of view was his lack of aggression. He approached the net just 15 times, winning nine points, while Djokovic was 35 of 41 (Novak made a point of noting that stat after the match). It had seemed, when he played Federer on Friday, that we had been introduced to a new, more proactive Murray. Against the steadier Djokovic, though, Murray was forced to generate his own pace and create his opportunities from scratch. All other things being normal, it’s hard to imagine Murray out-rallying and out-retrieving Djokovic over three-out-of-five sets. Even Rafael Nadal has lost the lion’s share of his baseline wars against the Djoker in recent years.

Djokovic said afterward that he was “full of joy,” and grateful for everything. “It’s an incredible trip for me,” he said, “being a professional tennis player.” 

“There’s so many athletes, tennis players around the world,” he continued, trying to put his life into some kind of perspective, “they want to be the best in what they do. They want to succeed. Many of them, they don’t succeed in the end. I’m fortunate to have this opportunity and succeed.”

Outside of Rod Laver Arena, Djokovic stood above Garden Square in the middle of Melbourne Park, where hundreds of Serbs had watched. He hoisted his trophy to them. 

Djokovic was asked if there had been any special motivation to win this title, after the losses he had taken at the majors last season.

“What more motivation do you need than from this trophy?” he grinned.

He loves the Aussie Open cup; he wouldn’t part with it as he walked the tunnels under Laver after the match. And why not? This is the tournament that made Djokovic a champion. He won his first major here, and four of his six Slams have come in Melbourne.

Which makes sense, because Djokovic is a champion for these courts. Most greats of the past developed their games to win on the slick grass at Wimbledon. Djokovic has won there as well, but his style is rooted in the medium-paced, true-bouncing hard surface that you find here. On these courts he can make offense and defense blend into one. It’s fitting that Djokovic received his beloved winner’s trophy from Andre Agassi tonight. Agassi, a pioneer of the baseline game that Djokovic has refined and further athleticized, won four of his eight Slams Down Under.

Djokovic was happy that he came forward so many times this evening, and his aggression was an important part of his victory. But he saved his most spectacular moment, as he usually does, for some late-match defensive theatrics. Up 3-1 in the fourth and pushing for a second break, Djokovic barreled across the baseline and hit that simple little shot known as a Skidding, Turnaround, No-Look, Stab One-Handed Backhand Lob. That lands an inch in front of the baseline. And eventually wins you the point. 

Much like Nole’s victory in Oz, at first that shot appeared to be a stretch, a twist, a reach, a big ask. In the end, he made it look easy.

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