When the moment came, Andy Murray looked as if he could not believe it. He had done what seemed all but impossible just 24 hours earlier: he had beaten Novak Djokovic, he had won the ATP Finals and he was, officially, the year-end No 1.
As he flopped on to his chair, he looked utterly spent. He had been running on fumes just to get to the final but somehow he had recovered from his three hour, 38 minutes semi-final slugfest against Milos Raonic and come back to flatten Djokovic 6-3, 6-4.
He was aggressive he was strong and he was, after a tentative opening game, in almost total control. If Djokovic had been the best in the world for the first half of the year, there was no question that Murray was the best in the business in the last six months. And now the current No 1 had beaten the former No 1 to prove the point. Life did not get much better.
“It was obviously a big, big match against someone who I’ve played so many big matches against in my career,” Murray said. “That would be my main rival really throughout my career.
“We played in all of the slam finals, Olympics, obviously here now, and a match to finish the year No 1. We played in loads of Masters Series finals, as well, and are one week apart in age.
“It was obviously a big match, a very important win for me. It was just a huge match to finish the year, to try and obviously finish No 1.
“This is a major event, as well, and one I’ve not done well in in the past. So it’s been a great week.”
The nay-sayers had harrumphed that Murray’s rise to the top had only happened because he had not had to face the likes of Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the finals and semi-finals of the biggest tournaments. Well, he was facing Djokovic now. And he was pulverising him.
As Milos Raonic pointed out, beaten by the Scot on Saturday in a marathon semi-final, it was not Murray’s fault that he had not faced the Serb since June. Murray had been waiting in the final of all but one of the tournaments he had played since April – it was Djokovic who was not good enough to get there to meet him.
But now the old rivals were back on court together. Djokovic had described their relationship as a “bromance” on Saturday night: they were born a week apart, they grew up together on tour and they had played each other for the biggest prizes in their sport. But last night there was little love lost between the two of them – there was too much at stake for that. Of all their duels, none had been as important as this one.
If the critics had thought Murray’s record was sullied by not having faced one of the big men in the chase to the No 1 spot, they overlooked the effect of Djokovic’s lack of big-match, big-player practice would have. It had been months since he had to fight for his life against a man he knew could hurt him and do it to win a title that mattered to him. And as Murray flexed his muscles and piled on the pressure, it seemed as if Djokovic had forgotten how to do it.
It is not a phrase often associated with Djokovic but he seemed mentally fragile, stricken with nerves and doubts. After a couple of decent service games to open the first set, the errors crept in and grew like knotweed. One smash was so far out it almost beaned a line judge, another swing volley – a sitter waiting to be smacked away for a winner – almost split the net. All the while Murray was piling on yet more pressure.
After about 20 minutes of early exchanges, Murray got his first break point. He was putting his shoulder to the wheel and pushing for all he was worth. Djokovic held on in that game but in almost every service game for the next hour, Djokovic was putting out fires and fending off break points.
Only when Murray played a couple of loose points in the second set did he show Djokovic a glimpse of a chance. He had relaxed just a little and it allowed the Serb to break back. But by that stage Murray was already two breaks of serve to the good and leading by 4-1. It gave Djokovic a new lease of life – he played considerably better for the next few games – but it was not enough and it was too late. Murray was not to be stopped.
For Djokovic, the hurt will last for a while. He will have to spend the next few months staring at the back of the Scot’s head as they travel the globe, Murray in first place and Djokovic in second. In the first three months of next year, the now world No 2 has 4,340 ranking points to defend just to keep his place behind the Scot. Murray, though, only has 1,290 points to protect and if his results are significantly better than they were at the beginning of this season, he will put clear water between himself and Djokovic.
His old foe, though, begged the media not to ask Murray about next year and the future. “We should let Andy enjoy this,” he said. “He deserves to be in the moment.” It was an honourable request from a beaten man. But deep down, Djokovic did not want to think about next year either. As Murray sprints into the distance, Djokovic has to work out a way of catching him.