A FEATHER, a blister and a heckler – when Andy Murray and Ivan Lendl finished their meticulous preparations for their Australian Open challenge, those three seemingly insignificant opponents would not have been at the top of their list of potential rivals for the trophy.
• Serb won 3 sets to 1, 6-7 7-6 6-3 6-2
• Djokovic becomes first man in the Open era to win three successive Australian Open titles
But, as Murray and Novak Djokovic both chased a little piece of history for more than three-and-a-half hours in the final yesterday, the result hinged on such tiny things.
A feather floating across the court as Murray prepared to knock in a second serve in the second set tiebreak interrupted his rhythm and he went on to double fault. A blister on the ball of his foot hurt like hell every time he tried to change direction and needed treatment at the start of the third set. And a heckler kept shouting out as Murray was trying to serve to stay in the third set. Scotland’s finest was not prepared to make any excuses for his 6-7, 7-6, 6-3, 6-2 loss to Djokovic – he had been beaten fair and square by the world No 1 and that was that. For two hours and 50 minutes, there had not been a whisker between them. Not a break of serve, not a clear-cut chance to gain an advantage. And then, as the heckler made his presence felt in between first and second serves as Murray tried to stave off a third break point, the Scot concluded the rally by putting a forehand into the net. Djokovic had his first break and that was like a starting gun to a sprinter. He was off and running towards the trophy.
By that stage, Murray had already needed the trainer to tape a large and angry blister on his right foot. And, as the medic worked to repair the damage, Djokovic limbered up and did some stretching exercises around the net post just to keep an eye on proceedings. What he saw told him all he needed to know. If Murray was going to struggle to move, Djokovic was going to make hay.
The first set had been a cautious, careful affair, both men playing defensively with Murray seemingly planning on staying on court all night. Their US Open final had taken nearly five hours to complete, so the Scot was not going to take any unnecessary risks in the opening exchanges. They punched and counter-punched until the defending champion made an absolute hash of the tiebreak and Murray was a set to the good.
With that nerve-settling cushion, Murray allowed himself to open his shoulders and attack a little more at the start of the second set. That earned him three break points, his first of the match. His old pal from their junior days had been looking edgy and frustrated so far – this was Murray’s chance to take a stranglehold on the match. But Djokovic held firm and the chance was gone in a matter of seconds. Still Murray kept at it. He did not drop a point on his first serve throughout the set until the tiebreak and, when he did – a netted backhand – it gave Djokovic three set points. He had already given the Serb the lead in the shoot-out when that pesky feather floated towards the court. It was hardly a game-changing moment but, when two grand slam champions are playing and there is barely a statistic between them, the merest distraction, the slightest disruption to their rhythm, can make all the difference in the world.
When he saw the state of Murray’s right foot during the injury time out before the third set began, Djokovic’s game plan was clear. He would make the Scot run and run. He would drag him wide and force him to stop and turn. He would make him sprint from corner to corner – anything to make him put pressure on that sore foot. And, sure enough, it worked. Murray could run all right, he just could not apply the brakes without wincing. By the fourth set, his left hamstring was niggling him as well.
When the heckler joined at the end of the third set, Murray gave the umpire, John Blom, a piece of his mind. “You have to say something,” he told Blom, urging him to silence the crowd. “Just saying ‘please’ doesn’t stop anything.”
But by now, the world No 3 knew he was in deep trouble. He could not move properly, Djokovic was gaining confidence with every point and, much as he did everything in his power to stay with the Serb, he was fighting a lost cause. So Djokovic claimed his place in the history books as the only man in the open era to win three consecutive Australian titles, while Murray could not rewrite the record books. No man in the open era has ever won his first two grand slam titles back to back. And, perhaps, all because of a feather, a blister and heckler.