ONLY minutes after losing yet another Australian Open final to Novak Djokovic, it was hard to extract the positives from his stay in Melbourne. But as Andy Murray takes the long flight home today, he will have plenty of time to mull over exactly what happened and just how far he has come in two months.
Novak Djokovic beat Andy Murray 7-6 (7-5) 6-7 (7-4) 6-3 6-0
It was only weeks ago that his critics were writing him off. Everything from his choice of coach, Amelie Mauresmo, to his choice of tactics (too passive), were deconstructed after his thrashing by Roger Federer at the ATP Finals in November, yet he had come within a few games of beating the world No 1. He lost 7-6, 6-7, 6-3, 6-0 but had he not taken his eye off the ball at the start of the third set when he was a break to the good, he may have broken Djokovic’s spirit. Had he not played a couple of loose points in the first set tiebreak, he might have been two sets ahead. And he was playing in his eighth grand slam final – something many though was beyond him at the end of last season.
“I’m sure you can all see what I was like on the court here compared with a couple months ago,” Murray said. “I feel like it was a completely different player on the court. A lot of that comes down to my team motivating me, working on the right things, then also me motivating myself to come back from a difficult year last year.”
Those two opening sets were simply breath-taking – the Scot looked better, stronger and more aggressive than when he was winning Wimbledon and the US Open in 2013 and 2012.
When Murray lost to Djokovic at the US Open last year, he knew he was beginning to play well again but, physically, he was not yet ready to beat the top men.
This time, Murray was running Djokovic into the ground with every sinew-snapping rally. Both men were chasing and retrieving, defending for all they were worth, constructing points with care and precision. This was not so much a tennis match as survival of the fittest. Some of the ‘gets’, somehow getting a racket string on a seemingly sure-fire winner and turning it into a winner of his own, were beyond belief. Up in the commentary booths, the TV pundits could only gasp.
To lose the first set was frustrating but, when Murray then went on to lose his 2-0 lead in the second, he started to fret. Angry at himself, he lost 12 points on the trot to drop his serve and find himself 4-3 down.
At that point, a group of protesters made their presence felt, a couple of them running onto the court and the rest shouting from the stands. Wearing T-shirts bearing the legend “Australian Open For Refugees”, they were removed from the arena by security guards. In the five minutes of mayhem before play could resume, Murray calmed himself down and readied himself for another superhuman effort. It worked. He won the second set.
At times, Murray was just too strong and too accurate for Djokovic. Then there were times when he was simply too clever, manoeuvring the world No 1 into places he did not want to be and then banging away the winner. And then there were times when pure reflexes – coupled with sublime talent – stole the day. And then it all went wrong.
Djokovic looked to be out on his feet and cramping at the start of the second set. Murray’s team sitting at the courtside warned him that the Serb was tiring –now was the time to pounce. “He always does that,” Murray replied but, nevertheless, he allowed himself to be fooled by Djokovic’s apparent play acting. The blinkered focus on the point in front of him slipped and, from a break up in that set, he was hauled back to 3-3 and, from that point on, he didn’t win another game.
“The way Novak was moving at the end of the third set, he obviously started playing much better again,” Murray said. “That contributed to some of it, as well. But I don’t know. Maybe it was the situation that you know if someone’s cramping in the final of a slam, with such a long way to go, you’re feeling pretty good about yourself – I don’t know. My level dropped off for ten, 15 minutes there, and he got back into it. That was it. I don’t know exactly why it was the case, but I’ve never really experienced that in a slam final before. Maybe the occasion was something to do with it. I don’t know.”
All Murray did know was that in a match of such tight margins, he had handed the initiative and the momentum back to Djokovic.
Mauresmo was obviously not happy with the result but she was pleased to see the progress Murray had made in such a short space of time. To lose a grand slam final is never easy but the season is still only a month old – there is plenty of time for Murray to improve between now at the French Open and Wimbledon, but this had been a good starting point.
“It wasn’t enough, it is not yet enough,” she said simply. “You can see that Novak produced his best play at the important moments. And, on Andy’s side, he was a little bit timid when he had a break or led. Novak served really well, better than Andy. The two little things made the difference.
“These were two really good weeks compared to the end of last year. Andy has really succeeded in finding his level of play but to beat a Novak Djokovic who is superb, it is not yet enough. We just have to continue to work. We have already made important progress – the little things are still to be worked on.
“I am with him to win titles. It is a step forward. There remains a big one to make and we are going to try to do it. Still, there are a few steps to climb before maybe holding a grand slam trophy again.
“That is what is important. There is still some work ahead but the gap is closing.”
Murray had plenty to think about before he begins his final descent into London Heathrow. And when sting of this loss fades, he will realise that he is not far from reaching his goal and another major trophy.
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