Serbian digs deep to keep grip on hard-won No 1 spot, but final will be fresh test of stamina

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Having waited for years to shake up the tennis establishment, Novak Djokovic clung jealously to his throne as he marshalled his forces to put down an attempted coup by Andy Murray at the Australian Open yesterday.

The Serbian’s 6-3, 3-6, 6-7, 6-1, 7-5 semi-final win at the Rod Laver Arena ensured at least another few months of grand slam exile for the fourth-seeded Murray, but also showed the price of power for world No 1 Djokovic.

Having just won a nearly five-hour war of attrition against the Scot, iron-man Djokovic must recover for another brutal test against world No 2 Rafa Nadal in tomorrow’s final.

The Spaniard was pushed hard by great rival Roger Federer in their four-set semi-final on Thursday, but finished the match brimful of confidence and full of running.

He also has an extra day’s rest and if he watched Djokovic’s match on television, he would have delighted in every slogging minute Murray put him through.

“There is no secret, it is going to be physical again,” said Djokovic, who advanced to his third straight grand slam final.

“I will do my best to recover. I have a day and a half. I will try to get as much sleep and recovery programme under way and hope for the best.

“I think that’s going to be crucial, you know, for me to recover and to be able to perform my best, because Rafa is fit. He’s been playing well. He had an extra day. He definitely wants to win this title.”

As in his quarter-final match against Spaniard David Ferrer, Djokovic was reduced to a panting, squatting mess a number of times during the Murray clash. The Serb said he had seen a doctor about his stuffy nose and put it down to an allergy, but said there was little that could be done.

“I’ve been trying to do everything possible to clear that out. But we are all surrounded with the flowers,” he said. “But still no excuses.”

After Murray’s last act of resistance – a scrambling forehand that failed to clear the net – the relief on Djokovic’s face was palpable as he fell to his knees, leaned back and roared at the stars.

The Murray he had played was a far different beast to the petulant opponent he destroyed in three sets in the final last year on the way to a 41-match winning streak and three grand slam titles.

In the lead-up to this year’s tournament, the long-time friends and hit-up partners were kept apart on the orders of Murray’s new coach Ivan Lendl, who saw no value in the matey games of football held between the rival camps in years past.

Djokovic said the Murray that emerged from lockdown was a more assured breed and willing to take his chances. “He’s so close to winning a grand slam. He’s one of the best players in the world, that’s for sure,” noted the Serb.

Djokovic defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga for his first grand slam title in 2008 as a precocious 20-year-old, sparking talk of the end of the Federer-Nadal duopoly. It took three long, frustrating years for Djokovic to finally break the door down in his astonishing 2011 season, but less than five hours against Murray to remind him how quickly he could be dumped.

“I’m aware now that everyone wants to win the major title, get that No 1 spot,” said Djokovic. “The year is long. It’s a great way for me to start the year, playing finals in the Australian Open, the first grand slam of the year. It’s going to be a huge confidence boost for me.”