Dazzling in defeat, Murray hits new heights as he loses classic duel with Djokovic
Even in the hour of a shattering
defeat, his body broken by nearly five hours of relentless combat, Andy
Murray could console himself with one thought: he is finally looking and
acting like a Grand Slam champion in waiting.
He has been closer to glory than a
semi-final three times, but never before at this rarefied level has he
really had the appearance of someone ready to take out one of his key
rivals when it matters most.
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So close, yet so far: Andy Murray missed out on a place in the final after losing to Novak Djokovic
He did not seriously challenge in his
three Grand Slam finals and in his trio of semis against Rafael Nadal
last year – the Spaniard was not fit when Murray beat him at the 2008 US
Open – there only looked to be one winner.
But against Novak Djokovic in an
extraordinary encounter at the Australian Open Murray could, and
probably should, have emerged the victor.
It was there in the way he was
prepared to clout his forehand from tight to the baseline, the way he
strove to keep his composure under the most extreme pressure and the way
he fought back from seemingly hopeless positions not once but twice.
Respect: Rivals Murray (right) and Djokovic embrace after their thriller
That he could not quite get past the
world's best player in a 6-3, 3-6, 6-7, 6-1, 7-5 loss was only due to
the remarkable survival instinct of Djokovic, who wrought such meek
surrender from Murray 12 months ago.
This encounter he described as one of the best matches he has ever played.
All hail: Djokovic was simply brilliant at times, and his big-game experience shone through
'I'm a different player with a different attitude now,' said a surprisingly sanguine Murray afterwards.
'I'm proud of the way I fought.
Sometimes you come off and you're disappointed that you've let yourself
down, I don't feel that here.
Respect: Their epic tussle left Djokovic
'There's a fine line between No 1 in
the world and No 4 and I felt I closed that gap. Everybody matures at
different ages and different rates and mentally I feel that I am ready.'
It looks like there is already an
'Ivan Lendl effect' at work but when they get down to the post-mortem,
old stoneface and his new coaching charge will know that there are still
improvements to be made for the final leap to be taken.
The second serve is something that is sure to be worked on during a more prolonged spell of training together.
It shows how good the rest of
Murray's game was on Friday that he came so close with only three out of
every 10 points won when he missed his first delivery.
Clearly there is also fine-tuning to
be done on the newly proactive forehand, which yielded 40 unforced
mistakes as the Scot cut his margins for error and tried to blast past
arguably the greatest mover the sport of tennis has ever seen.
And he lost, of course.
Nothing Lendl or Murray can do will
magic away the two players who are currently superior to Murray – and
who will meet on Sunday for the third straight time in the final of a
Djokovic's Indian Rubber Man body certainly faces a race to recover in time.
Telling: But Murray had his moments, and Djokovic was out on his feet by the end
Murray's training block with Lendl
will take place after a short break and one thing sacrificed is likely
to be his participation in Great Britain's Davis Cup tie against
Slovakia in Glasgow the weekend after next.
No final decision has been made, but captain Leon Smith will be waiting anxiously.
Murray flies home on Saturday after a
match defined by its vicious mood swings and, for two top players, the
constant struggle to hold serve.
An astonishing 50 break points were distributed almost evenly between the pair.
With Murray 2-0 down in the second set, it was looking dangerously close to a repeat of the 2011 final.
Net gains: Murray fought every step with the Serbian world No 1, matching shot-for-shot
But then the British No 1 started to unload gloriously off either flank and stretch his man around the court.
Rather like in their miniepic at the
Italian Open last May, Djokovic went from looking like a wounded beast
one minute to a gazelle the next.
At times he was blowing so hard you thought his cheeks would explode.
When Murray spurned numerous
opportunities to seal the third set, his forehand at once deadly and
delinquent, it looked as if the tiebreak would be decisive.
The 24-year-old Scot held his nerve and took it 7-4.
But Djokovic suddenly went on the
attack and when his opponent missed a drive volley in the first game of
the next set to be broken, he took the momentum on. Now it was Murray whose legs appeared to be filled with lead.
All eyes on us: Despite going on long into the night, spectators stayed packed in to the Rod Laver Arena
The fourth set was effectively given
up and when they went into the decider, Murray failed to stop the force
of nature that is the Serb.
Clambering all over the Scot's second serve, Djokovic surged to 5-2.
But Murray was not finished and in
what was surely an unprecedented instance of an Australian crowd roaring
on a Brit, he came tearing back to level the match as the clock ticked
Now he got his chance with three
break points, but here was the difference: Djokovic put his first serve
in and was able to dictate.
Rallying cry: Murray was cheered on by his usual entourage, including girlfriend Kim Sears
In the final analysis, however, Murray got into a rally on each break point and should have clinched one of them to serve for the match.
It was no surprise that Djokovic seized on one last momentum change.
'You practise all your life to win these matches over five sets,' he said.
For Murray, there is much more graft to come.