ANDY Murray feels he can walk away from the Australian Open with his head held high after narrowly losing out to Novak Djokovic in a thrilling five-set semi-final.
He may have fallen short in his bid to reach a third successive title decider in Melbourne, but the manner of his loss to the world No 1 was in stark contrast to the limp surrender in his final losses to Roger Federer in 2010 and Djokovic last year.
In both those matches, Murray underperformed as if crippled by the weight of expectation.
Yesterday may not have been a final but the pressure was just as great and although he again ended up defeated, his performance offered encouragement that a maiden grand slam crown could yet come his way.
The match, all four hours and 50 minutes of it, was decided by a few points. Having hit back from 5-2 down in the fifth set, Murray critically failed to convert three break points at 5-5. Djokovic then held and broke himself to win 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (4/7), 6-1, 7-5 and advance to tomorrow’s final against Rafael Nadal. And despite Murray coming so close, the way he passed up his chance to seal victory remains a concern, and a reason why his doubters will continue to question his nerve.
“It was obviously a very good match,” said Murray. “I had the chance at 5-5, on one of the points I missed a backhand in the net. It was tough at the end, you come back then you get close to breaking so to lose is tough. But (I am a) different player, a different attitude to this time last year. I am proud of the way I fought.”
The momentum of the match fluctuated one way and then the other. Djokovic claimed the opening set as Murray struggled for any rhythm.
He found it in the second, though, levelling with Djokovic again showing signs of the breathing problems which struck during his quarter-final defeat of David Ferrer.
If the first two sets were attritional the third, all 88 minutes of it, was simply punishing, especially in the latter stages.
Murray staved off three set points at 4-5 and then broke for 6-5. But he could not see it out as Djokovic hit back to take it to a tie-break.
Murray dug deep and came through it to edge ahead for the first time.
After what had gone before, the fourth set was totally unexpected, the defending champion romping through it in just 25 minutes, breaking three times en route with Murray offering very little resistance.
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And when he broke in the decider for a 4-2 lead which swiftly became 5-2, it seemed the Serbian was on the brink.
But there was to be another twist as Murray hit back for 5-5. But the failure to clinch one of those three break points threw him off course and Djokovic took advantage.
“Sometimes you come off the court and you’ve played really badly, you haven’t been quite there mentally, and you’re really disappointed with yourself because you’ve let yourself down,” Murray added. “I don’t feel like I’ve let myself down today.”
As it was against Ferrer, Djokovic’s body language for long periods was one of a man struggling. In between points he was breathing heavily – he later put it down to an allergy – yet it did not seem to impair his movement.
And Murray admitted it did not surprise him to see his opponent acting this way. “He’s done it many times before,” he said. “He runs very well when he’s breathing heavy, you just have to put your foot on the accelerator and not wait for him to miss because he’s hitting the ball so cleanly.
“He’s going for shots and making them, shortening the points. He was similar in the last match but he moved fine.”
Djokovic was relieved to have come through. Victory over Nadal would make him just the fifth man to win three consecutive grand slam titles in the open era following his victories at Wimbledon and US Open last year.
“It is difficult to describe, I was just trying to focus on every point,” Djokovic said of his comeback in the last two sets. Andy deserves the credit to come back from 5-2 down, he was fighting, I was fighting.
“It was evidently a physical match, it was one of the best matches I have played, emotionally and physically it was equally hard. I am delighted to reach the final and what can be a bigger challenge than playing Rafael Nadal, who has been playing so well on this court? We have a lot of respect for each other but I am going to try to recover.”