Tennis in 2017 set a high bar for itself on its opening weekend.
When Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic met in the final in Doha on Saturday, many of us were expecting to be served an appetizer before the Australian Open’s main course. Instead, the ATP’s two best players gave us the feast first. It may be a while before we see a better match.
Rather than a meal, though, it would be more appropriate to compare Djokovic’s 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 win to a play. This one came in three acts, and required both of its protagonists to dig deeply into their emotional reserves.
Djokovic dominated the stage over the first two sets. Coming in, there had been questions surrounding his game. He had lost in two tepid sets to Murray at the World Tour Finals last November, and in Doha he had been forced to save five match points to survive his semifinal with Fernando Verdasco. But Djokovic wasted no time in putting the last few shaky months behind him.
He played with aggression and precision, changed directions with the ball more easily and frequently than Murray, and pinned him behind the baseline. Djokovic’s down-the-line backhand, which had been landing in the alley against Verdasco, was touching down in the corners against Murray; the serve that had been erratic in big moments was there to help him save five of seven break points. Djokovic would win 24 of 35 points at the net, and make 72 percent of his first serves. Longtime Djokovic fans must have known they were in for a good day when he took a full cut at his first overhead and smashed it away for a winner. When he’s not feeling confident, Djokovic will push that shot back in the court. He didn’t make all of his of his overheads on Saturday, but he took his rips.
Djokovic, in other words, had his edge back. By the middle of the first set he had gone over it. After losing a long point on a Murray drop shot, Djokovic slapped a ball into the stands that hit a spectator on the arm and was given a warning. Later, he slammed his racquet into the court and was handed a point penalty. He greeted new assistant coach Dusan Vemic with a few long stares and choice screams. Were you wondering about Djokovic’s motivation after 2016? It doesn’t look it’s going to be a question in 2017.
But with desire comes anxiety, and Djokovic tightened up just enough when he was serving for the match at 5-4 in the second to open the door for his opponent. Now it was Murray’s turn to take center stage. If Djokovic was motivated by the chance to reclaim bragging rights going into Melbourne, Murray was equally motivated to show that he belonged on his new No. 1 perch. With Djokovic serving at 5-4, he saw his chance.
Murray saved three match points, broke serve, and then broke again at 5-6 on the strength of two backhand pass winners and a powerful backhand return. This was the beginning of a stretch of brilliance that appeared, for a split-second, as if it would take Murray all the way to victory. For the first five games of the third set, he was the aggressor, the shot-maker, the one absorbing Djokovic’s best and finding ways to come up with something better.
When Murray went up 0-30 on Djokovic’s serve at 2-3, the Serb appeared to be losing faith. I had started the day thinking that Djokovic had more to gain in this match; now the opposite seemed to be true. A win by Murray, after saving match points, would have been a strong message heading to Melbourne. Djokovic, who had switched to a practice shirt for the third set, knew it.
But it’s at just those moments, when Djokovic begins to accept that defeat could be in his future, that he’s traditionally most dangerous. He relaxes, stops fighting himself, and goes for his shots; and there’s no one in tennis who can keep up with him when he’s connecting on those shots. It’s not a style of competing that anyone would teach, but it’s one that has also worked for Serena Williams over the years. Rather than maintaining a laser-like focus over the course of a match, they benefit more from losing their focus and then gaining it back. This system worked as well over the last half-year for Djokovic, but the fact that he pulled it off in both the semis and the final in Doha may be the surest sign that he’s “back.”
Down 2-3, 0-30 in the third against Murray, Djokovic hit a casual drop shot before winning the point with a lob. Something seemed to free up in him after that. He saved a break point with a big serve and a bigger forehand, then broke serve with a series of huge ground strokes. When Djokovic served for the title a second time at 5-4, he tightened up again and went down 0-30. But this time Murray couldn’t take advantage of the lapse. Instead of rising to the occasion again, he missed three straight routine ground strokes, and Djokovic put the fourth and final point away with a forehand winner. He had won his 67th career title, and Murray’s 28-match win streak had come to an end.
“It means a lot,” Djokovic said of his Doha title defense, “because in the last three, four months of 2016 I haven’t felt that confident on the court. I didn’t play consistent.”
“To start out the year with a win over the No. 1 in the world, it’s a dream start, so I’m hoping I can get the best of it.”
Now that the curtain has fallen on the season’s first drama, what should we take away from it?
From Djokovic’s point of view, the desire to reclaim No. 1 and reassert himself over Murray has taken him out of his 2016 funk. In Doha, he won the way he has won in previous years: With his back to the wall, he came out firing. Even as he approaches 30, there’s still no one who fires away as effectively as Djokovic.
From Murray’s point of view, he can go to Australia knowing that even if he’s down against Djokovic, he can raise his level, take control of the rallies and turn the momentum in his direction. That’s not something he’s been able to do very often against the Serb over the past three years.
Most important, though, is the state of their matchup as we head deeper into 2017. Djokovic-Murray hasn’t been especially competitive in recent years; the Serb now leads their head to head 25-11. And it often hasn’t been especially entertaining, either; their counter-punching styles have produced rallies that were more notable for their length than for their thrills. But if this highly competitive and entertaining final is any indication, that could be changing. This year Djokovic and Murray both have something to prove, and for the first time they both have the confidence that they can prove it.