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Steve Flink: Djokovic very worthy of triumph down under

1/27/2013 12:00:00 PM

Precisely one week earlier on Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open, Novak Djokovic was engaged in a skirmish unlike any other in the 2013 edition of the tournament. The world No. 1 had to fight with almost ineffable fury to escape against No. 15 seed Stan Wawrinka. Djokovic was the victor in five tumultuous sets, overcoming an individual who played the match of his career before bowing out gallantly 12-10 in the final set. That was in the round of 16. Skeptics questioned if even the supremely conditioned Djokovic could recoup from such a bruising and debilitating showdown. They wondered if his bid for a third “Open Era” crown in a row at the prestigious major “Down Under” would fail because perhaps Wawrinka had taken too much out of the 25-year-old Serbian. They believed he might not have what it took to reassemble his game and win three more matches down the stretch at one of the sport’s most comprehensive testing grounds.

The critics sorely underestimated Djokovic in every way. In the end, Djokovic demonstrated emphatically that he has not only the extreme recuperative powers but also the mentality of a towering champion. He took apart No. 5 seed Tomas Berdych in four comfortable sets, crushed No. 4 David Ferrer with a straight set winning performance of the highest order, and then rallied admirably from a set down to avenge his U.S. Open final round loss to Andy Murray.

In the final round today, Djokovic was two points away from a two set deficit, but he fought back with vigor and panache to record a thoroughly deserved 6-7 (2), 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-2 victory over his formidable rival from Great Britain. Djokovic thus captured his sixth career Grand Slam singles title, becoming the first man ever in the Open Era to win the Australian Open three times in a row, claiming a fourth crown “Down Under” overall. What impressed me more than anything else was this: for the first time in ten major finals, Djokovic did not lose his serve.

Murray, of course, is one of the sport’s premier return of serve artists, standing right up there on a platform behind perhaps only Djokovic among the very best in that category. But Djokovic kept the British competitor at bay with his serving mastery. He was unwaveringly precise with the wide slice serve in the deuce court through all four sets, opening up the court to do whatever he wanted off the forehand. He also was strikingly accurate with the flat serve down the T on that side. In the Ad court, Djokovic was even more intelligent, moving his serve around the box adroitly, throwing in some heavy kick first serves that bounded high to Murray’s backhand, mixing in some excellent first deliveries down the T that were released with too much pace and precision. Most important of all, he backed up that serve fantastically, orchestrating the points as only he can.

Djokovic raised his record to 6-4 in Grand Slam tournament finals with another impressive performance, but he was living precariously across the first two sets of this clash. Djokovic was losing his footing sporadically in the early stages, and he was unable to make his presence known on the consequential points. The first set was agonizing for him in many ways. He kept pressing Murray and providing chances for himself, but the Serbian could not translate opportunity into triumph at that stage. Murray was terrific from the backcourt over those first two sets, standing toe to toe with Djokovic in the high quality rallies, remaining poised on serve when the odds were heavily against him.

Murray performed deep into this contest like a champion, conveying to Djokovic that he no longer doubted himself on a big occasion after toppling the Serbian in the U.S. Open final last September to record his first win in five Grand Slam finals. Murray was carrying himself with remarkable self-assurance and spunk on this occasion. He somehow took the first set despite some serious struggles on serve. The chances all belonged to Djokovic, but Murray stood his ground unhesitatingly. On their way to the opening set tie-break, Djokovic was much more in command on serve. He was only once pushed to deuce, did not face a break point, and won 25 of 35 points. Conversely, Murray won 28 of 39 service points, but he needed to cast aside five break points.

The level of play from the baseline was magnificent on both sides of the net, although it was Djokovic who was always more willing to approach the net, and he was highly successful in that endeavor. Through the first three sets, he won an astounding 27 of 31 net approaches, demonstrating an innate sense of when to come forward and what to do once he was up there. In the formative stages of the match, both men were as disciplined as possible.

Djokovic had the advantage of serving first. He held at 15 for 1-0 and at 30 for 2-1, while Murray was even more untouchable, serving two love games on his way to 2-2. The first hint of a possible break was in the fifth game. An errant forehand swing volley from Djokovic enabled Murray to reach deuce, but swiftly the Serbian restored order. He took a floating return from Murray and approached the net behind a well measured forehand drive volley, and Murray missed the passing shot. At game point, Djokovic made the most magical shot of the match. Murray ventured forward to play a short angled backhand drop volley, and he covered the line. But Djokovic somehow threaded the eye of a needle, curling his backhand pass for a winner up the line with elegance and astounding control to take a 3-2 lead.

The set had come alive at that moment. Djokovic seemed poised to stamp his authority on the proceedings in the following game. Murray was serving at 2-3, 15-40 but he out-dueled Djokovic from the baseline to save the first break point and then coaxed another forehand mistake from the Serbian to make it back to deuce. Djokovic moved to break point for the third time, only to lose his balance and slip, which cost him the point. At break point for the fourth time, an apprehensive Djokovic netted a two-hander down the line into the net tape. Murray gamely held on for 3-3 with an ace. Two games later, serving at 3-4, Murray erased another break point against him. An inside-out forehand return opened up the court for the British competitor, who then came forward to put away a forehand drive volley. Soon Murray had travelled to 4-4. Both players held with relative ease to set up the tie-break, but it was Murray who went into that sequence in a better frame of mind.

Djokovic double faulted on the first point, and Murray was off and running. A sparkling forehand winner down the line gave the No. 3 seed a 2-0 lead, and then Djokovic erred off the forehand when attempting a forehand inside-in winner. Djokovic never found his bearings in that tie-break, and Murray was virtually letter perfect. Murray did not miss a first serve, nor did he commit an unforced error. Djokovic, meanwhile, was essentially downcast, missing all of his first serves. Murray prevailed seven points to two.

On to the second set they went, and Djokovic confronted danger at the outset. After Murray had held at love in the opening game, Djokovic fell behind 0-40 on his delivery. This was critical territory for Djokovic. Had he been broken there, he might well have found himself down two sets and drifting inescapably toward defeat. But from 0-40, Djokovic refused to surrender. Murray missed a forehand passing shot before pulling a two-hander wide with a good opening crosscourt. Then Djokovic took matters into his own hands, coming forward behind an inside-out forehand to punch a forehand volley into the clear. Djokovic held for 1-1 on in perhaps the pivotal game of the match.

Meanwhile, there was something of a role reversal over the course of that second set. Now Murray was much more in command on serve while Djokovic was the player under pressure. En route to the tie-break, Murray conceded only seven points in six service games while Djokovic worked harder, winning 26 of 37 points on his serve. But the Serbian was serving from behind, and he had no real margin for error. At 5-6, 30-15, Djokovic double faulted. He was two points away from losing the set. But he used a first rate sliced serve wide to elicit a short return from Murray. Djokovic approached confidently off a crosscourt forehand, and emphatically put away an overhead. At game point, Djokovic released a backhand crosscourt winner off a weak return from Murray, and so it was 6-6.

Clearly, Djokovic needed this second set tie-break more than Murray. The top ranked player in the world applied himself accordingly, playing each point with meticulous care and craft. At 2-2, Murray missed his first serve and then paused before hitting his second. He removed a bothersome feather from his line of vision. But his rhythm was disturbed. Murray sent a second serve long, double faulting for only the third time in the match and the fifth time in the entire tournament. Djokovic took that small piece of good fortune and stretched it into something larger. He rolled to 5-2 and came through commandingly in that tie-break. The defining moment came with Djokovic serving at 5-3. He prevailed in an absorbing 29 stroke exchange to reach triple set point, measuring a forehand down the line impeccably as Murray could not handle the pace. Moments later, Djokovic sealed the tie-break, 7-3. He had climbed back to one set all with an obstinate stand and a champion’s point of view.

After the set, the trainer treated Murray for a problem with his foot, which seemed to be severely blistered. But the biggest problem for Murray was plainly Djokovic, who now had an entirely different and brighter outlook. The fact remained that neither player had yet broken serve. In their previous two appointments in Grand Slam events—in the semifinals of the 2012 Australian and the final of the 2012 U.S. Open—there had been a total of 35 service breaks in ten sets. But in today’s final, both men were protecting their deliveries sedulously. That remained the case until Murray served at 3-4 in the third set. It was right then and there that everything changed radically. Djokovic opened that game by displaying his patience and his ability to create and opening and then go for it. On the 36th stroke of a spectacular rally, after defending stupendously off his backhand side, he produced an inside-out forehand winner. The favorite unleashed another forehand winner to reach 0-40 before Murray wiped away two break points. At 30-40, Murray could not escape, netting a crosscourt forehand on the seventh stroke of the backcourt exchange. Djokovic followed with a love hold, connecting with all four first serves. Set to Djokovic, 6-3.

Djokovic knew the match was in his hands. He had swept 20 of 24 points on serve in the third set while Murray—seemingly nursing not only the foot problem but an ailing leg as well—sagged to a large degree. Murray did have an early break opportunity for 2-0 in the fourth set, but Djokovic calmly executed a service winner and held on for 1-1. Predictably, Murray could no longer stay with Djokovic. At 1-1, Murray served a double fault to fall behind 15-30. Djokovic pounced, cracking a forehand inside-in winner. Two points later, he sealed the break. Serving at 1-3 and break point down, Murray double faulted again. Djokovic was 0-30 down in his last two service games, but rescued himself both times to finish off the four set victory.

Murray may have been softened by his four hour, five set triumph over Roger Federer in the semifinals. From 3-3 in the third set against Djokovic, he lost nine of the last eleven games and was broken three times. And yet, he demonstrated that he will still win his share of matches with Djokovic across the coming years. It was, however, a difficult day at the office for Murray. Not only did he lose for the fifth time in six major finals, but he was beaten for the third time in an Australian Open final, falling for the second time to Djokovic in a title round clash at Melbourne. As for Djokovic, he will surely be revitalized in a variety of ways by this triumph. After collecting his fifth Grand Slam championship last year in Australia, he had lost his last two major finals to Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros and Murray in New York. He needed this win at the first major of 2013 more than many people knew.

The view here is that Djokovic is going to win at least one more Grand Slam title this year, and quite possibly two. He may well be ready to win the French Open for the first time, and will be in the heart of the battle at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Meanwhile, this is one of those moments when he can afford to pause and appreciate what he has accomplished in claiming victory at five of the last nine majors. Make no mistake about it: Novak Djokovic is a great player at the height of his powers, and he has become as professional as anyone in his trade.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.