IT HAD to end sometime: Andy Murray’s winning run of 11 straight matches and his stunning run of success over the past five and a half weeks came to a shuddering halt last night when he ran into Novak Djokovic and reeled away without leaving so much as a dent.
With hindsight, his 7-5, 6-2 defeat in the quarter-finals of the BNP Paribas Masters was always on the cards. The Scot had played extremely well in Paris but not even he knew just how much fuel he had left in the tank. Always wary that he would wake up one more morning feeling like a wet rag after playing for 22 matches in 35 days, he suddenly had that empty feeling in the second set against the world No 1.
“I started rushing points at the end, that’s for sure,” Murray said. “I tried to finish points quite quickly. You just saw the stats on TV up there that as soon as the point got over five shots I was winning more of the points.
“But all of the rallies that finished before five shots, I mean, I think he won like 22, 25 more points, so that was clearly the difference in the match. And a lot of them were obviously towards the end of the first set or the middle end of the second set. I just made too many mistakes early in rallies and couldn’t get enough returns in play.”
Djokovic, although he is still on an emotional high after becoming a father last week, has not played nearly as much tennis as Murray over the autumn swing and, with his position as the best player in the world to protect, he is focused, refreshed and full of running. He is keeping a wary eye on Roger Federer’s charge for the No 1 spot as the two men head to London, so there was no way he was going to let Murray anywhere near his defences. Djokovic was guarding his position and his chance to bank more ranking points and Murray could not find a way past him.
There is little by way of secrets between the two men. On the professional tour, they have played 23 times now, with Djokovic winning all but eight. Of late, the Serb has had Murray’s number and has now won seven of their last eight outings (the Wimbledon final was Murray’s only win during that run). That said, in the past couple of months, as Murray has made his push to get back up to the top of the rankings, he has faced Djokovic three times and is slowly edging closer to his old foe.
Duringthe last six weeks, he has rediscovered his winning form with three tournament victories.
With a few days at home to rest up and some serious practice sessions planned before the ATP World Tour Finals begin on 9 November, Murray is nothing but confident about his chances before the season comes to a close.
“We’ll see in London [how I play] after a little break,” he said. “I can still take confidence in the last few weeks. Hopefully I can put in a good performance in London and it will be a good test for me. But I feel like my game’s not that far away against those guys.
“At the beginning of the year, I wasn’t there, ready to play against those guys, that’s for sure.
“I think the match against Novak at the US Open was a pretty good match, and I felt like my level was there during that event.
“The last six weeks have been fantastic. Only positives can be taken from those last six weeks. I got through it with some really tough, long matches, physical matches, and against top players. It will stand me in good stead even for next year as well. But certainly I can only really take positives from the last six weeks. Now I’ll get a few days’ rest and get ready for London.”
The pattern of last night’s match became clear from the start. Murray was running flat out just to keep pace with Djokovic, while the Serb was easing through the gears and waiting for his moment to pounce. He kept picking away at Murray’s service games, making him play another shot, another rally, face another break point.
Time and again, Murray managed to serve his way out of trouble in the early exchanges but, when he found himself staring at a sixth break point at the sharp end of the opening set, he could withstand the pressure no longer. A tame forehand into the net cost him the set and, in the twinkling of a Halloween lantern, he was facing another three break points as the second set began.
Even when he managed to break the Djokovic serve, he could not hang on to the lead and dropped serve in the very next game. After that, it was all one-way traffic as the Serb took charge and Murray rushed and fluffed his way towards an early defeat.
No matter: Murray is leaving Paris having accomplished his main goal by qualifying for the Tour Finals. He is hungry for competition again and he has learned how to win tournaments again. With that in his arsenal, he feels ready for anything. Murray’s season is not over yet.