Wednesday 16 August 2017

Tennis: Djokovic holds court on Murray's day to forget

Novak Djokovic makes a successful return on his way to a straight-sets victory over Andy Murray in yesterday’s men's final at the Australian Open. Photo: Reuters
Novak Djokovic makes a successful return on his way to a straight-sets victory over Andy Murray in yesterday’s men's final at the Australian Open. Photo: Reuters

Paul Newman in Melbourne

there were no tears this time, but when Andy Murray looks back on his third successive straight-sets defeat in a Grand Slam final, his regrets are likely to be deeper than on either of his two previous attempts to land one of the four great prizes in his sport.

Twelve months after he cried at the presentation ceremony following his defeat by Roger Federer in the final of the Australian Open, the 23-year-old Scot had a look only of resignation on his face following his 6-4 6-2 6-3 defeat here yesterday to Novak Djokovic.

"I'll try to keep it together this year," he said, after accepting his trophy as runner-up before going on to give a measured speech in which he thanked all and sundry for their support.

Murray could not explain why he did not feel as upset as he had last year. Maybe it was because he never did himself justice this time and rarely looked capable of beating his boyhood friend, who has been the outstanding player of this tournament.

Twelve months ago, having gone into the final expecting to win against the greatest player of all time, Murray performed well, but not well enough. When you have not even come close to achieving your goal, perhaps the pain of failure is easier to bear, in the short term at least.

While Djokovic played superbly, combining stonewall defence with exhilarating attack and consistent ball-striking, Murray never looked at his best.

Attempting to avoid being drawn into the baseline-slugging points that Federer kept losing in his semi-final against Djokovic was a sensible tactic, but Murray made too many mistakes, served poorly and did not come out of his shell often enough to hit the winners he needed if he was to end Britain's 75-year wait for a male Grand Slam singles champion. It was not the heaviest of his three Grand Slam final defeats, but it was the most dispiriting.

When Murray lost to Federer in New York three years ago, going down in an hour and 51 minutes after winning only nine games, there were a number of factors counting against him. It was his first appearance in a major final and cruel scheduling meant that he had little time to prepare for the biggest match of his career.

When he lost to Federer in two hours and 41 minutes last year, winning 13 games, he could still take pride in his performance, having forced the Swiss to dig deep: if Murray had taken one of his five set points at the end of the third set, the outcome could have been very different.

This time, Murray won only nine games and lost the match in two hours and 39 minutes.

contest

If the length of the contest indicated that it was closer than the score suggested, that would be misleading. From the moment Murray lost a first set in which both players made a cautious start, he never looked like turning the contest around.

At this level the serve can be the most crucial weapon in a player's armory.

While Murray failed to put enough first serves in court -- 53pc to Djokovic's 67pc -- it was his second serve that let him down more. The Serb broke him seven times in the match. And on two of the three occasions when Djokovic dropped his own serve, he broke back immediately.

There have been times since Djokovic won his only previous Grand Slam title here three years ago when it seemed that his career had reached a plateau, but the world No 3 has had an outstanding last five months.

He took part in one of the matches of the year to beat Federer at the US Open before losing to Rafael Nadal, led Serbia to their first Davis Cup triumph and has now reclaimed the crown here. Whatever the expectations had been back in Britain, Djokovic was the clear favourite to win here, especially after his awesome dismissal of Federer.

He played superbly again, attacking when he had the opportunity and defending stoutly whenever Murray went on the attack. On several occasions the Scot drove big ground strokes into the corners, only for Djokovic to defend with beautifully judged lobs that landed on, or just inside, the baseline.

The match turned with two points in the last game of the first set, in which there had been only one break point, saved by Murray in the second game. When the Scot served at 4-5 and 15-15 he was drawn into two lengthy baseline rallies in which Djokovic upped the ante with bigger and bigger shots. The second, which created set point, featured 38 strokes and ended with Murray putting a forehand in the net. A forehand struck long on the next point gave Djokovic the set after 59 minutes.

Djokovic ran away with the second set, establishing a 5-0 lead as Murray fell apart. The Scot tried to up the tempo, going for his shots and moving forward, and momentarily held his ground. Both players broke serve twice at the start of the third set, but at 3-4 Murray was broken for the last time as Djokovic won another lengthy rally.

After serving out for the match Djokovic's celebrations were muted, in respect, perhaps, for his friend on the other side of the net.

Following a warm embrace with his opponent, Djokovic gave notice that the party was about to begin by hurling his shirt, shoes and two rackets into the crowd.

Murray, meanwhile, sat silently and forlornly in his chair. A tennis court can be a lonely place when you have just lost a Grand Slam final. (© Independent News Service)

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