As he said when he took the microphone at the presentation ceremony: “I feel like I’ve been here before.”
The unfortunate fact for Murray is that he has been here before at many a grand slam final. In all he has reached the last Sunday at nine major championships; he has won two but now lost seven. And the only men who have stopped him have been Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. The Serb did for him again yesterday 6-1, 7-5, 7-6.
A slow start and a couple of double faults in the third set tiebreak cost Murray his chance of his first win in Melbourne but at least he had erased the memory of last year. Twelve months ago, he had a mental meltdown, allowing Djokovic to run away with the trophy. This time he just got beaten.
The Scot’s annual appointment with Djokovic on the banks of the Yarra is proving to be annoyingly familiar. Even if he had not had a host of off-court concerns to distract him this last two weeks, he would have gone into yesterday’s final as the underdog – the champion had beaten Murray here in three finals before. Djokovic is streets ahead of everyone at the moment and his focus and his relentless defence make him all but unbeatable. But Murray tried. He tried everything he knew and still it was not enough to get a toehold in the match.
He did not help his cause by starting slowly but that was not unexpected. When he has nothing else but his tennis to worry about, he can walk on court ready for the very first ball. But when he has spent the past week worrying about his heavily pregnant wife, trying to whip himself up to that level of intensity prior to the match proved almost impossible.
Just as he had against Milos Raonic in the semi-final, Murray dropped his serve at the start of the match and was playing catch-up from then on. But Raonic is no Djokovic so he was able to reel the Canadian in. By the time he had found his bearings yesterday, the world
No 1 was 5-0 ahead. The first set, then, was a write-off.
Yet there were little signs towards the end of that set that the adrenaline was beginning to pump through Murray’s system. He pinged in his first ace. He held serve. He got a read on a couple of serves. It was the beginning of the fightback.
The first set took 30 minutes; the first three games of the second took 23 minutes as Murray hung in on every rally. He was serving better, he was hitting his backhand better and he was making Djokovic work harder and harder. Even when he was broken – another forehand missing its target – he broke straight back.
Murray was going for broke, thumping 21 winners in that second set to Djokovic’s eight. Yet, playing eyeballs out on every point leaves very little margin for manoeuvre and the error count rose. “I saw some of the stats just at the end of the match,” Murray said. “He won 25 more points than me, 26 more points. I had 25 or 26 more unforced errors. I think I didn’t hit my forehand particularly well at the beginning of the match. I started to hit it better in the third set. But, yeah, that was it.”
The trouble was that Murray was running flat out just to stand still. He flung everything at Djokovic and Djokovic kept flinging it back. When he dropped his serve from 40-0 up at the end of the second set, leaving the Serb to serve for the set, it was like a kick in the teeth. They had been running each other ragged for 80 minutes in that set alone – one rally lasted for 36 strokes – and yet in the blinking of an eye it had been taken from him.
“The game I lost 40-Love up, was a tough one,” he said. “Maybe I could have nicked that set. I was starting to have quite a lot of opportunities in the second. I had a few chances there when I got the break back I think. That was a tough game to lose.”
No matter, Murray stuck to his guns. He kept chasing and harrying, he kept pushing and forcing and he would not give in. Maybe on another night in another tournament, one where he had been able to focus only on himself and his game plan, he might have taken some of the chances he created. But, then again, with Djokovic on the other side of the net, maybe not.
By this evening, Murray will be back at home with his wife and the two can prepare for parenthood together. Soon Sunday’s final will be just a distant memory. Djokovic may be king of the hill for the moment but when Murray gets back from paternity leave in March, he will not let the Serb rule in peace.
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