Too good. It has been that way all year. Novak Djokovic, the best player in the world by a country mile, was just too good for Andy Murray yesterday in the final of the BNP Paribas Masters.
Murray did everything within his power – he tried everything he knew – and he could not touch Djokovic. Then again, many men have tried to stand in the way of the unstoppable force this year and have retired bloodied, bruised and beaten. This time Murray tried to win from the baseline and was outplayed, he tried to serve and volley and attack and he was thwarted. Murray played eyeballs out just to keep Djokovic within sight but he could never catch him as the Serb ran away with his fourth title in Paris 6-2, 6-4.
For Djokovic, it was his tenth title of the year and his 14th final. He has collected three grand slam trophies, six Masters trophies and, just for good measure, an ATP 500 title in Beijing, a tournament at which he has not been beaten since 2011. As the year draws to a close, he is 6,815 ranking points ahead of Murray, the world No 2, and, it would appear, all but unbeatable. As it is, no-one has stopped him in 22 matches and he has only dropped one set since the start of September.
“This year Novak’s level has been incredible,” said Murray. “Since the beginning of last year, my results against him and Roger [Federer], from my perspective, haven’t been good enough.
“I need to do better in those match-ups. Obviously, it’s harder playing against the best player than someone that’s ranked No 8 in the world. Those two are two of the greatest players of all time, so there is no disgrace in losing to them. But I do feel like I need to start doing better in those match-ups, because the scoreline in the last couple of matches [against Djokovic] hasn’t been good. I need to think about why that is and what it is I can do to change that and turn around.”
There was a time when matches between Murray and Djokovic used to be prolonged and brutal battles. Straight sets could take almost three hours and both men were spent by the end of it.
But this year, as he has swept all before him, Djokovic has limited their battles and yesterday he may only have hit ten winners but he kept his old mate at arm’s length throughout.
Murray knew what he wanted to do, his problem was executing that plan perfectly. If every shot was not on the money, Djokovic could – and would – pounce. And trying to be perfect from first ball to last is an impossible task.
The “unforced” error count began to rise on Murray’s stat sheet, although the term “unforced” seemed a little harsh. Djokovic forces everyone into errors – if you do not take a chance against him, you will never win. And if you take a chance, you may miss. Murray did that 34 times over the two sets and hit 20 winners.
Yet in the second set, Murray began to make some headway. From a break down, he broke back, fended off another break point and pumped his fist as he came off best in a long baseline rally.
But then, as the momentum was shifting in his direction and he had Djokovic at 0-30 on the Serb’s serve, he lost the next five points and went on to drop his serve.
“There was a couple of games in the second set where he started turning things around,” said Djokovic, “broke back and was leading 3‑2, love‑30, just barely missed one forehand return. So things could have gone a different way. But I managed to stay tough, save my service game on 3‑2, and I think that after that point I felt that I have a good chance to finish off the match in straight sets. It was, all in all, the best performance of the week, and it came at the right time.”
The margins were that narrow: one missed return, missed by fractions of an inch, separated the champion from the runner-up. But Murray is getting used to that this year: he is undoubtedly the second best player in the world (he is currently 1,130 ranking points ahead of Federer in third place), but the constant beatings by Djokovic are getting just a little wearing. The past week had been good and Murray had played well but losing to that man Djokovic – again – had taken the shine off it.
“It’s been a positive week, but it’s not the finish that I wanted,” Murray said. “Shanghai was also similar in that respect. So I actually played well there. And then the match against Novak [in the semi-finals] – obviously, I’m going to say like I feel I could have played better.
“But the day before, I played excellent tennis against [Tomas] Berdych, and my match against Steve Johnson, I also felt like I played really well. Here, same thing. I played some really good tennis against some tough, tough players.
“Today, again, I would have liked to have done better, but getting to the finals of a Masters Series is good. It’s not like it’s a bad result, but I would like to have done better today.”
Sunday, though, is over and Murray must now look ahead.
Yesterday, he was looking for the quickest route out of Paris to get home and begin his clay court preparations for the Davis Cup.
Today, he will be hard at work at Queen’s Club, perfecting his clay court footwork.
Then, at the end of the week, he will switch back to the hard courts to get himself ready for the ATP World Tour Finals which start on Sunday.
“I start practising on the clay tomorrow afternoon,” he said after the final. “I will do that through until Thursday, and then start practising over at the O2 probably on Friday.”
And at least he will not have to worry about Djokovic again until and unless he gets to the last four of the Tour Finals (at the earliest). That ought to make the coming week go a little more smoothly.