Net Loss

Wednesday, March 26, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

MIAMI, Fla.—When the stories about today’s quarterfinal between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are written, they will undoubtedly focus on the first point of the 12th game, with Murray serving while down 5-6, and the controversy it engendered.

You know, the point that ended when Djokovic reached over the net to tap away a feeble Murray lob. Long story short: Chair umpire Damian Steiner failed to call Djokovic for impinging on Murray’s side, a violation that automatically costs the transgressor the point (hat trip to SI.com's Courtney Nguyen):

Murray protested. He even held a pow-wow with his opponent up at the net. Djokovic freely admitted that he’d reached over the net, but professed not to know just what that meant, rules-wise.

Later, with microphone in hand and addressing 12,840 spectators, Djokovic explained his actions, and he even referred to a point that cost him dearly in his French Open semifinal clash with Rafael Nadal last year. On that occasion, Djokovic touched the net with his follow-through as he dispatched a sitter—and justly lost the point.

”I had a bad experience with that before, at the French Open,” he remarked. “I’m not sure, you tell me. Can I reach across?”

Cynics might guffaw at the idea that Djokovic wasn’t sure about the rules. You might have expected him to bone up on the rule book after that disastrous episode in Paris. But personally, I don’t like to call a man a liar unless I’m dead sure that’s what he is.

Moreover, while the controversy clearly affected Murray—he lost the next three points in short order, and that was it for the set—but it was his second set collapse that cost him more dearly. That’s the one that ought to rankle his support team. That group includes former coach and present-day booster Ivan Lendl, who was present in Murray’s box.

The second-set collapse—for that’s exactly what it was—keeps alive a familiar theme: That Murray still has a nagging attraction to self-sabotage.

Going into the fifth game of the second set, neither man had made much headway against the other’s serve. Murray appeared to have picked himself up and dusted off following the controversy that cost him the first set, so much so that he finally arrived at break point, just his second of the match.

Djokovic surprised Murray with a serve-and-volley, but Murray converted his second chance to pass with a backhand. He’d finally broken through and the long road back had suddenly turned from gravel to macadam.

But Murray then played an atrocious game, one he was unable to blame on infringement or anything else. He tossed in two double faults and lost the game on a weak backhand tacked into the netting.

Back on serve at 3-3, Djokovic held and promptly broke Murray for a second time. With that 5-3 lead, Djokovic played like Superman and won the match with a flourish, belting a down-the-line forehand winner to end it.

Murray’s dejection after the match was obvious. He broke with habit and appeared almost immediately in the interview room. While he spoke, he made only fleeting eye contact, preferring to spend most of the interval gazing into the space hovering about five feet above the heads of the assembled scribes.

“In the second set, I gave away a couple of free points, double faults,” he conceded. “And Novak, normally when you're serving you need to work pretty hard on your own service games and not give him any free points then. It swings in his favor. That was what happened, but I definitely had a bad game on my serve, maybe two.”

Djokovic had watched Murray’s outstanding win in the previous round over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He knew Murray was striking the ball well and moving well, and he ended up getting pretty much what he anticipated.

“I expected him to be a little bit more aggressive,” Djokovic said. “I tried to not allow him to be in the comfort zone, you know, because when he strikes (the ball in) that zone he’s maybe best in the world. . .   (But) I think I was calmer in the important moments where he wasn't. He lost his composure, I think, and made unforced errors and allowed me to win.”

If that’s an accurate assessment (and for my money it is), the takeaway is that Murray still lacks that final measure of self-assurance as he continues to plough through his comeback from back surgery. Critics and pundits can analyze and/or criticize until they’re blue in the face, but Murray isn’t going to win big again until he himself feels he can, and whatever is going to make him feel that won’t be flowing from my or anyone else’s inkwell.

That helps explain why Murray professes to be content with his progress, reminding us: “I guess most players will tell you coming back from surgery takes time. It's just different to just having an injury for a couple of months. Surgery is a completely different thing.”

As for the controversy, Murray clearly chose to hover above it. He said, “For me, it's impossible to tell from where I was, but I knew it was close. So that's why I went and asked Novak, and he told me he was over the net. That was it.”

He shrugged and later added, “Maybe it had a slight bearing on that (12th) game, but I was still up a break in the second set, so. . .” His voice trailed off, “. . .Yeah.”

Djokovic also reiterated the details much as the spectators and viewing audience saw them, and endured his grilling in the press room with poise and patience.

“Now people would say, 'Yeah, but maybe you knew the rule, you're lying,'” he said, pausing. “I'm (being) completely honest. Nothing to hide really. That's what I thought is the rule. Right now, that's the way it is. I mean, it might be a turning point, might not. Anyway, the match is over.”

So, for now, is Andy Murray’s comeback.

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