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Steve Flink: Djokovic Captures Another Major

1/30/2011 12:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

When Novak Djokovic captured the 2008 Australian Open to claim his first major title, there was a widespread feeling among the cognoscenti of tennis that the charismatic Serbian would build on the platform of that success and power his way forward into the winner’s circle of subsequent Grand Slam championships. Djokovic improved so markedly from the middle of 2007 into the early stages of 2008 that it seemed inevitable he would secure more major titles across the next couple of years. Djokovic had it all going for him with his speed and athleticism, his penetrating ground strokes and extraordinary court coverage, and his capacity to wear down his adversaries with not only the depth and weight of his biggest shots but also his propensity to rescue himself frequently with outstanding defense.

But the rest of 2008 and all of 2009 and 2010 did not unfold the way Djokovic would have wanted. He seemed often like a tormented performer, a man ill at ease with himself during the tight corners of important contests, a player who knew precisely what he wanted yet could not find a way to bring out his greatness when the stakes here highest. After that breakthrough triumph in Melbourne three years ago, Djokovic did not make it back to another Grand Slam tournament final until the 2010 U.S. Open, losing to a top of the line and supremely confident Rafael Nadal. But now, at long last, after all of the disappointments over the last few years, Djokovic has done it again. With sweeping assurance and an inner calm he has rarely if ever displayed, Djokovic captured a second Australian Open title, yielding only one set in seven matches, crushing his 2010 Wimbledon conqueror Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals, toppling Roger Federer in a second straight semifinal at a Grand Slam event, and then cutting down old rival Andy Murray comprehensively in straight sets.

Djokovic irrefutably played the finest sustained high quality tennis of his career. Not since Jim Courier in 1993 had a player followed up on leading his country to victory in the Davis Cup by taking the first major of the year. The Serbian has soared to another level of excellence, and poor Murray found out the hard way just how tough Djokovic is these days on his favorite hard court surface under the right conditions. Here was Murray, appearing in a second Australian Open final in a row, looking to become the first British man since Fred Perry at the U.S. Championships in 1936 to be victorious at a Grand Slam event. This was Murray’s third major final overall. He had understandably been overwhelmed by Federer in his first major final at the 2008 U.S. Open. A year ago in Melbourne, Murray took on Federer again, and he had won 6 of 10 career meetings with the Swiss.

A good many authorities thought he would oust Federer at that Australian Open of 2010, but down he went in straight sets again. Clearly, the circumstances surrounding his third appearance in a Grand Slam final seemed more favorable for Murray. The intimidating Federer was not standing on the other side of the net. Murray was facing an opponent he had beaten three times in a row after losing their first four head to head collisions. Murray knew that this was a match that neither he nor Djokovic was necessarily expected to win. It was his for the taking, but the same could be said for Djokovic.

And yet, from the earliest moments of this showdown, it was strikingly apparent that Djokovic was almost imperturbable, while Murray was out of sorts and disconcertingly off key with his game. Djokovic moved rapidly to 1-0 after holding at love, and Murray missed two running forehands in that game, which was a sign of things to come. At 0-1, Murray barely held his serve after five deuces, connecting with only 7 of 16 first serves, fending off a break point, needing five game points to close out that arduous game. Djokovic let Murray off the hook with a forehand unforced mistake on the break point, but he was dictating freely from the back of the court and returning commandingly.

Murray had reason for mild encouragement at 1-1. Djokovic was down 15-30 and Murray scampered forward to reach a trademark Djokovic drop shot, steering his forehand deep down the line. The Serbian predictably lobbed, and Murray should have easily put his overhead away. But he missed that smash flagrantly, and Djokovic went on to hold from deuce. Murray was still not getting enough first serves in—he would finish with only 53% for the match while Djokovic surpassed him considerably at 67%--but the No. 5 seed held with an ace down the T at 15 for 2-2. Both players settled into the match rather comfortably, as Djokovic held at 15 for 3-2 and Murray did the same for 3-3.

It seemed likely that the set would be settled in a tie-break. Both players held at 15 again in the seventh and eighth games to make it 4-4. Murray was still not that sharp, but he was holding his own. And then the entire match turned in another direction altogether. Djokovic held at 15 for the third service game in a row, concluding that game with a crackling inside-out forehand winner. Serving at 4-5, Murray started that crucial game with a double fault. He got back to 15-15 but Djokovic was setting the tempo during the rallies unrelentingly. The Serbian opened up the court for a forehand down the line winner to make it 15-30, and then took the point of the match to make it 15-40. The two competitors produced an exhilarating rally of 39 pulsating shots, and Murray did everything he could to drive balls out of Djokovic’s reach. But Djokovic was impenetrable. His retrieving off the forehand was astonishing. Shifting brilliantly from defense to offense, Djokovic approached crosscourt off the forehand and Murray could not respond, netting his passing shot. At 15-40, Murray drove a forehand crosscourt long, and the set belonged deservedly to Djokovic, 6-4.

Murray made good on only 44% of his first serves in that opening set, while Djokovic was at 63%. The Serbian won 16 of 17 first serve points, primarily because of his pinpoint location. Alarmingly, Djokovic was proving superior on the return of serve. And he was building confidence swiftly and surely. In the first game of the second set, Djokovic held at love. Murray lost that game when he floated a sliced backhand long. He had no feel. He was largely devoid of control. He was moving poorly. Djokovic knew what he had to do. The Serbian raced to 5-0 in the second set as a desultory Murray fell into disrepair and competed almost half-heartedly. In that span, Djokovic won 22 of 28 points. He maintained his intensity and played unerringly, covering the court impeccably, pounding his forehand relentlessly and getting terrific depth on his two-handed backhand.

Murray was inexplicably absent during this stage, conveying that he believed he had no chance to win at all. Serving at 0-5 and set point down in the second set, having lost no fewer than seven games in a row, Murray was fortunate. Djokovic missed a second serve return off the forehand with an opening for a winner. Murray managed to hold on, and then broke a seemingly distracted Djokovic for the first time in the seventh game, taking that game at love. But Murray was not buoyed by that development in the least. Rubbing his eyes repeatedly, looking despondent, moving at nowhere near his customary speed and smoothness, Murray was broken again, and Djokovic had the set 6-2.

At the start of the third set, Murray fleetingly came to life. He broke Djokovic with a scintillating forehand passing shot down the line winner, and seemed ignited. That did not last for long. As he served in the second game of the third set, Murray was winning only 31% of his second serve points at that juncture. Djokovic was beating him to the punch time and again. The Serbian broke back at 15 for 1-1. At break point, Djokovic threw up a high defensive lob. Murray retreated, and bungled another overhead. After Djokovic held easily for 2-1, Murray fought unwaveringly in the following game. He saved six break points—two with aces—but on his seventh break point Djokovic came through brilliantly, defending obstinately before racing across the court to make a stunning backhand passing shot down the line. That devastating play lifted Djokovic into a 3-1 lead.

Surprisingly, Djokovic lost his serve in the following game, and then Murray saved two break points to knot the score at 3-3. But Djokovic was in no mood to panic. He held calmly for 4-3 at 15, closing that game with a thundering backhand down the line winner. Serving at 3-4, Murray had two game points. Djokovic was unbothered. He kept sprinkling the court with winners, got the break for 5-3 by pushing Murray far behind the baseline and provoking a forehand error, and held comfortably at 30 to complete a 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 triumph. For Djokovic, there has been no better moment in his career as he captured his second major in his fourth final at a Grand Slam event. He has set himself up for a magnificent year, and the feeling grows that he will make his first authentically concerted effort to become the best player in the world. At 23, he has found a new maturity, and discovered what he can accomplish when his mind is clear and his game is clicking on all fronts.

As for Murray, this was a monumental disappointment. It was no disgrace for him to lose to a Djokovic who was playing such sublime tennis. Perhaps Murray at his best might have still fallen short of victory; that probably would have been the case. But the fact remains that he was largely unprofessional. To virtually give away the second set with so much riding on the outcome of this match, to not compete with extreme urgency at such a time of consequence, to fall apart under those circumstances and hardly try: Murray has no reasonable explanation for this. His attitude was abysmal. He owed it to himself, to his fans and to the tennis public at large to give a much greater effort, and to compete with a lot more heart.

Perhaps he had some lingering injuries after a difficult fortnight, after battling through a pair of draining and immensely physical four set matches in the quarters against Alexandr Dolgopolov and in the penultimate round against David Ferrer. But that is no excuse for not giving it your all. I have been one of his most ardent boosters, and have been expecting him to get on the board at a major for the last three years. I still believe it will happen; Murray is too good for that not to happen. But to not win a set in his first three finals at Grand Slam events is not the way it should be. No man in the Open Era has allowed that to happen.

To be sure, other great players have had similar difficulties as they strived to win a first major. Kim Clijsters lost her first four finals and has now won four in a row. Ivan Lendl went through an agonizing period from 1981-83, losing his first four major finals in that span; Lendl, of course, went on to win 8 of his last 15 championship matches at the Grand Slam events. Andre Agassi was the favorite to win his first three Grand Slam finals but he fell at the 1990 French Open to Andres Gomez, lost to Pete Sampras at the 1990 U.S. Open, and bowed again in 1991 at Roland Garros against Jim Courier. Yet Agassi got up off the canvas and was victorious in eight of his last 12 finals at the premier events. Of those four losses in that stretch, three were at the hands of Sampras.

So Murray need not despair. At 23, he has time to alter his outlook and start rising to the biggest occasions. But he won’t get there by competing as tamely as he did against Djokovic at this Australian Open. Murray can learn something substantial from his rival. After Djokovic put his name permanently in the record books among the champions at the majors, it took him 12 more appearances to win a second Grand Slam tournament singles title. Only Marat Safin—with 14 appearances—waited longer between first and second titles. Djokovic endured some tumultuous times, heard the loud voices of the skeptics, and suffered some bruising defeats on the most renowned stages. But here he is now, apparently moving into the summertime of his talent, leaving his disappointments in the past and looking forward to the next few seasons. Novak Djokovic has given himself an immense boost at the start of a new year, and even his toughest critics must now concede that he may well be approaching some golden days ahead.

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