Andy Murray must wonder what he has to do in order to win the Australian Open.
He has come to Melbourne Park as the world No 4 and as the world No 2 and he has fought his way to the final five times. And then either Roger Federer (once) or Novak Djokovic (four times) has sent him home empty-handed.
But this year he arrived as the best player on the planet, the man who had only lost four matches in the last six months. He was in the fourth round and he was playing Mischa Zverev, the world No 50 and a man who had all but given up on his career due to injury five years ago.
It was only in 2014, after yet more surgery – this time to repair a wrist problem – that Zverev thought he still had one last hurrah in him. That hurrah came yesterday as he beat Murray 7-5, 5-7, 6-2, 6-4 in three-and-a-half hours of sustained brilliance. It was the Scot’s earliest departure from Melbourne since 2009 and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
“I had some opportunities at the end,” Murray said. “I think the last two service games I had chances. Maybe three service games in the last set I had opportunities. Maybe he missed a couple of balls that he had been making.
“But then he came back from all of the mistakes that he made, kept coming, kept coming up with great shots. You know, there’s not too much you can do about that. Sometimes you’ve got to say, ‘well played’.”
As Murray was explaining what had happened, Dan Evans was still on court. He was losing to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the fourth round, but he was still in the tournament. Technically, he had outlasted the No 1 and the last time a British man lasted longer than Murray at a Grand Slam was in 2006 when the Scot lost in the first round of the French Open and Tim Henman was beaten in the second round.
Zverev plays a game that most thought had been consigned to history. In a world of brilliant returners – Murray being the best among them – no one plays serve-and-volley tennis any more. But Zverev does. With a wicked left-handed serve, he came racing in behind it 118 times and won the point 65 times. But what was more surprising was that this naturally aggressive player could also hold his own from the baseline when he had to.
Murray did not serve particularly well – his second serve let him down – but he was not playing badly. He could have been more aggressive at the start but his biggest problem was that he just could not find a way to pass the German at the net. He tried everything and still the ball came back at him.
“Every time it was close points, I put Mischa under pressure, he came up with great stuff,” Murray said. “That’s unfortunate for me and great for him. He deserves to be in the next round.”
Returning serve, any serve, is Murray’s stock in trade. And yet it was Zverev who manufactured 17 break points to Murray’s 13 and managed to break eight times to Murray’s five. Only when he was a break to the good in the fourth set and cantering towards the finish line did the German look a little edgy but it was only for a moment here and there. A fluffed volley was forgotten and overtaken by another thumping serve; a missed forehand was replaced with a stunning winner. Murray was on a hiding to nothing yesterday.
“I’m obviously down about it,” Murray said. “It’s just tennis. I had great success for a number of months. Obviously in the biggest events you want to do your best. That’s not been the case here. It happens.
“Credit to him. He came up with great, great shots and played a really, really good match. You always finish matches you lose with things you maybe could have done a bit better, but he played some really good stuff.
“I’ve had tough losses in my career in the past. I’ve come back from them. This is a tough one. I’m sure I’ll come back OK from it. But right now I’m obviously very down because I wanted to go further in this event, and it wasn’t to be.”
Murray will talk to his family before making any decisions on what to do next. There is the Davis Cup in Ottawa to think about and there is the appeal of staying put in the Australian sunshine for a few days before he gets back to work.
“I’ll have a chat to my family first,” he said. “I didn’t get to see loads of them at the end of last year with training and then going over to Doha. First people I’ll speak to is them, see what I do.”
So another year passes and the Australian Open eludes Murray. Perhaps he will never win in Melbourne but he will, at least, keep trying. That is just what Murray does.