Saturday 16 December 2017

Tennis: I'm closing gap, insists Murray after epic

Simon Briggs

Once again, Andy Murray will leave Australia turning over the critical moments of a devastating defeat in his mind. But this time, the suffering will be leavened with a feeling of pride that he left every last drop of sweat and striving out there on Rod Laver Arena.

Many people think of Murray, who was playing his seventh Australian Open, as a fully formed player with a fatal weakness in those all-important Major tournaments.

But in fact he's still only 24, a young man searching for the answers that might unlock his potential. After yesterday's match -- in which he spent the majority of the five sets dictating terms to world No 1 Novak Djokovic -- he is clearly a step closer to turning that key.

This was the longest match of Murray's career, at 4hr 50min. It was the most physically draining match of his career. And it was arguably the finest performance of his career.

Yes, he might have taken advantage of Rafael Nadal's creaky knees a couple of times. But at the highest level of the game -- which means five-set Grand Slam encounters against fully fit opponents -- Murray has never come closer to beating one of the heavyweights who hold men's tennis in an armlock.

"It's the effort that I'm most proud of," said an upbeat Murray. "You never want to come off the court having any regrets or thinking 'Could I have pushed a little bit more?' I couldn't have, really, so I can't be disappointed."

The match was intense from the start, but it was in the second set -- when Murray hit his stride -- that it really became punishing. There were numerous rallies that went past 20, 30 even 40 shots. The spectators held their breath as the high-pitched squeaking of the players shoes betrayed their ceaseless movement, tiny adjustments that put them in the perfect position to deliver the next stroke.

"Some of the points in the second and third sets were brutal," said Murray. "They were so long." But it was hardly because he was playing conservatively. He struck 47 winners in the match, and that number would have been even higher but for Djokovic's preternatural powers of retrieval.

Asked what differences there might have been between Murray's bloody-minded resistance yesterday and his limp performance in the final 12 months ago, Djokovic replied: "He was more confident on the court. He was taking his chances. He was being more aggressive. I think he was playing better."

After the first two sets had been shared, 6-3 apiece, that aggressive mindset carried Murray through a third set in which he broke Djokovic twice but could not hold on to the advantage. He had to get the job done in the tie-break, which he managed with the help of some lion-hearted serving.

Ahead two sets to one against an opponent who had been panting for air and flexing his legs as if troubled by cramp, Murray was now the strong favourite. But he was also experiencing some physical strife of his own.

The fourth set turned into a 25-minute rout as Djokovic surged back into contention, and the Serb then put himself on the cusp of victory by taking a 5-2 lead in the decider.

One more twist remained, as Murray broke back, reeling off three consecutive games to move to 5-5. He even had three break points to go 6-5 up and serve for the match. But Djokovic produced some big first serves, and on the one point where Murray had an inviting opportunity, with the ball sitting up in the middle of the court, he dumped a regulation backhand into the net.

Asked how he would mark his performance out of 10, Murray plumped for eight and a half.

Now, with new coach Ivan Lendl at his side, plus the possibility of a training block in Miami over the next month, Murray can go looking for the extra improvement that could make him a Grand Slam champion.

"After last year, the year that Novak's had, I think there's a very fine line between being No 1 in the world and being No 3 or 4," he said. "I feel tonight that I closed that gap. My job over the next two or three months is to surpass him and the guys in front of me. It will take a lot of hard work, and hopefully I can do it." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Australian Open, Men's final, Live, Eurosport/BBC2, tomorrow, 8.30am

Irish Independent

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