The Rubber-Band Man Returns

by: Steve Tignor | February 01, 2015

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Once again, Novak Djokovic bends but never breaks at the Australian Open, which he's won five times in the past eight years. (AP Photos)

There was much that was the familiar about the third Australian Open final between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. But there was one welcome difference: This one, finally, had some spark.

The winner was the same. Djokovic, in a roller-coaster that turned into a rout, took home his fifth Aussie Open champion’s trophy while dropping Murray to 0-4 in finals in Melbourne. 

The scoreline, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-0, was very similar to Djokovic’s winning 6-7 (2), 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-2 scoreline over Murray in the same round in 2013.

And the way in which the match unfolded was equally familiar. Two close, grinding sets to open. Lots of long, tiring rallies. Surprising turnarounds and momentum shifts. Plenty of between-point sturm and drang, as well as a few racquet bangs. Three hours and 38 minutes for four sets. And, in the end, a sprint down the homestretch by Djokovic. By the close of the third set, Murray appeared to be flailing, with steadily increasing hopelessness, against a brick wall. 

It was familiar enough that Djokovic predicted how it would go way back in September, after he beat Murray in their most recent Grand Slam match, at the U.S. Open. Yesterday, in my preview of this final, I used this quote of Djokovic’s from Flushing Meadows, about what he thinks separates him from Murray at the majors, to explain why I thought he would win:

“We’re going to have a lot of long rallies and a lot of exchanges. It’s going to be physical but also mental. I get the feeling that if I get to stay with him and kind of, you know, work, work, and not get too loose and frustrated with points and not allow him to get into a big lead, I feel like there’s a point where I feel that I have that edge, you know, maybe physically.”

That about sums this one up as well. Djokovic stayed with Murray, until Murray couldn’t stay with Djokovic.

Yet this final offered more than just the traditional Muzzovician war of attrition, and until the last five games it wasn’t at all predictable. 

In the first set, Djokovic hurt his thumb after falling, yet it was Murray who tightened up and handed the tiebreaker to him. Murray, up 4-2 in the breaker and serving with the wind, double faulted and pushed the easiest of forehand volleys long. He had talked pessimistically about his chances before the match; had he taken too many defeats at Djokovic’s hands—Murray has now lost eight of their last nine—to believe this would turn out differently?

In the second set, Djokovic appeared to be rolling toward a quick win, but a delay, to oust a group of protestors from the stadium, slowed his momentum and gave Murray a chance to settle down, step in, and take that set. By the end of the second, the match reached its peak. The rallies went from exercises in attrition to rapid-fire, all-court shot-making contests.

In the third, Djokovic appeared to be reeling physically, and went down a quick break. This time it was the Serb who settled down and stepped in again. Perhaps the most important point of the match came with Djokovic down a break point at 3-3. Djokovic hit a short-angle drop volley, Murray covered it and appeared to have the down the line pass in his sights, but drilled the ball into the net as he flew onto Djokovic’s side of the court. Novak roared and commanded his coach, Boris Becker, to stand in appreciation. On the other side of the net, Murray seemed to surrender. One game later, serving at 3-4, he double-faulted at break point and flung his racquet down. It would only get worse from there.

“It was a cat-and-mouse fight,” Djokovic said, “it always is. I think both went out with the full repertoire of the shots we have. From my side it was definitely very exhausting. Saved some break points at 3-all in the third set and managed to make that break and win the third. After that I felt huge relief. I felt I could swing through the ball. I felt the momentum was on my side and wanted to use that.”

Murray’s press conference was dominated by talk of Djokovic’s physical struggles early in sets two and three, and his ability to quickly dust himself off and leave them behind. Afterward, Murray admitted that he let it get to him.

“The third set was frustrating,” Murray said, “because I got a bit distracted when he, like, fell on the ground after a couple of shots. It appeared that he was cramping, and I let that distract me a little bit. That’s what I’m most disappointed about.”

Murray gave Djokovic a brusque handshake when it was over, and while he praised him graciously during the trophy ceremony and never accused him of sandbagging, he also didn’t dispel the notion.

“I have no idea what the issue was,” Murray said. “He obviously looked like he was in quite a bad way at the beginning of the third set and came back unbelievable at the end of that set. Then obviously the way he was hitting the ball in the fourth set and moving was impressive. So, yeah, I don’t know exactly what the issue was for him.”

Djokovic stumbled and shook out his foot repeatedly at the start of the second set; in the third, the problem returned and seemed to travel farther up his leg. But he said he didn’t have a bad ankle, or cramps.

“I was just weak,” said Djokovic, who blamed “the length of the rallies” and the physical nature of the match. “I went through the physical crisis in the matter of 20 minutes.”

We’ve seen Djokovic mysteriously stumble around the court in the past—go here to see him “playing drunk” in Shanghai in 2013—before recovering to win. I don’t think he was acting today, or trying to distract his opponent. Murray himself is known for mysteriously grabbing body parts and then coming back strong a few games later. He said he was disappointed he let that distract him this time, and he should be. We know that the mind, and the body, can do strange things in the heat of high-stakes competition.

In this one, it was the body of one player, and the mind of the other, that ended up deciding it. 

Djokovic, as he seems to realize, is just a little better than Murray at what they both do. His forehand is smoother, more versatile, and a bigger weapon; few have ever covered the court the way he does; and over the course of a five-setter, he has a way of bending but never quite breaking. Djokovic is a rubber-band man in body and mind.

As for Murray, at one stage ESPN’s Darren Cahill said he thought the Scot was “fighting himself.” I think he was fighting to make himself believe that he should beat Djokovic in a match like this. He had no trouble believing it against Tomas Berdych in the last round, but he couldn’t get over that mental hump today. Up 4-2 in the first-set tiebreaker, Murray faltered. Up an early break in the second, he lost the next four games before coming back to salvage the set. Up an early break again in the third, he would lose 12 of the next 13 games.

Most telling was a shot Murray hit when he had a set point at 5-4 in the second. For much of the tournament, he had been taking his ground strokes early and punishing them, and he started the final the same way. This time, though, with the pressure on, he let the ball drop and put it into the net. The old passivity had cost him, and I don’t think, if Murray has that shot in that situation against his three previous opponents, Grigor Dimitrov, Nick Kyrgios, or Berdych, he makes that mistake.

Djokovic has now won his fifth Australian Open and eighth major. On what is often called the fairest surface of all the Slams’, he has been dominant, and this time he did it on a faster version. Maybe most impressive was the way Djokovic, after battling tooth and nail with Murray in the final and Stan Wawrinka in the semis, handed each of them a final-set bagel for their troubles. 

Two days ago, after he beat Wawrinka without being close to his best, I said Djokovic was like the Germans in soccer and the old Oakland Raiders of the NFL: They won, period. In Australia this year, Djokovic went himself one better. In the end, his motto could have been, “Just"—or Djust—"win 6-0, baby.”

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