It would be hugely unfair to suggest, in all seriousness, that Murray was careless – Djokovic is the world No.2, he is one of the best returners in the game and he was playing a blinder. No matter, Murray had him on the ropes but just could not find a way to put him away.
Scotland’s finest eventually lost 5-7, 7-6, 6-3 after nearly three-and-a-half hours of eye-watering exertion. Whenever the two old friends meet, the match is brutal and physical.
Where Roger Federer brings out the best in Murray’s game, Djokovic brings out the warrior in his soul. The two men grew up together in the junior ranks and try to do exactly the same things on court – they both want to control the baseline, they both want to turn defence into attack and they both will fight to the bitter and bloody end. This time it was Djokovic who just nicked the win; 35 days ago, it was Murray who got his reward in the US Open final.
And when two players know each other so well – they first met when they were 11 years old – there is never going to be a clear favourite. The first set was as bizarre as it was predictable: whenever Djokovic got his nose in front, Murray broke back. And when Murray got his nose in front, Djokovic imploded, albeit briefly. That is what tends to happen when neither man is prepared to give an inch.
Smashing his racket to smithereens, Djokovic chucked the mangled remains to the side of the court. Murray had just broken for a 6-5 lead and the world No.2 knew he was in trouble. But when the Scot failed to convert those five match points, it was Murray’s racket that took a pasting.
“To be honest, I don’t feel that frustrated right now,” Murray said immediately after the match. “Maybe previously that wouldn’t have been the case. There were obviously some moments in the match, I guess both of us showed a bit of frustration. We obviously wanted to win a lot.”
It has been a long summer for Murray both physically and emotionally.
It required a huge amount of physical effort to reach the Wimbledon final and then come back to win the Olympics and the US Open, but it also drained his mental reserves. So when Djokovic seemed to get a new surge of energy after winning the second set, Murray began to tire. He was sore and stiff but he was also running on empty.
“It was a long match. I’m sure he’ll feel the same,” Murray said.
“It’s not the first week of the year either. Also, after the US Open, for me anyway, I took a bit of time off, so you’re never going to be in 100 per cent peak physical condition in terms of your endurance. So I struggled a bit towards the end.
“In the third set he played better than me. In the first set, there were a lot of breaks. It was fairly even. The second set, I probably played a little bit better. But he came up, served very well on the match points.
“The one match point I had on my serve in the tiebreak, he hit the forehand onto the edge of the line. On the game where I also served for the match, he also came up with some good shots. It’s not like I threw the match away. I didn’t make I don’t think any real glaring errors or anything. When I had my chances, he just served very well and hit a couple of lines when he needed to.”
Before he won the US Open, Murray might have fretted for weeks over losing those match points to his nearest rival. Before he had a grand slam trophy of his own, losses to the rest of the Big Four at the top of the rankings hurt deeply. But now that he has proved himself at the very highest level – and proved it by beating Djokovic in New York last month – he can deal with defeat at this level all the better. He will probably face the Serb again at the Paris Masters and in London at the Tour Finals; he will get another chance against Djokovic before long.
“I feel like my game’s there,” Murray said. “If I had won one of five match points, I’d be sitting here in a slightly different mood.
Obviously, I would have liked to have turned that around. It was a disappointing one to lose. I’ve lost tougher matches than that before in the biggest events. So I’m sure I’ll recover from it pretty well.”
And if he has another five match points against the Serb, the outcome is likely to be very different.