Sunday, January 27, 2013

Australian Open Final: Novak Triples His Pleasure

If you ever get into a dark alley scuffle with Novak Djokovic, make sure you that you deliver the knockout blow early. And don't get picky about whether your weapon of choice is well-made or well-strung, either. Just, whenever you have the chance, take your best shot and put everything that you have into it. Because if you don't, and you miss that opportunity, no matter how good your fighting form may look when compared to Djokovic's in the early stages of the brawl, you might not get another chance. He'll find a way to outlast you. And when the sun comes up in the morning, it'll more than likely be you who's left curled up in a bloody ball in the corner, while Djokovic is out celebrating his latest career-fortifying triumph.

Just ask Andy Murray.

Of course, the sort of rope-a-dope style of match that Djokovic used to pull off a 6-7/7-6/6-3/6-2 victory over the Scot to secure his sixth career slam crown -- and fourth in Melbourne, to become the first man in Open era history to win three straight AO titles -- isn't some new revelation. He's done this sort of thing before. Many times, in fact. Unlike either of his Big 3 predecessors, Djokovic has a history of often looking susceptible to defeat in the early stages of a big match, only to come roaring back with fire in his eyes to put away a by-then-wilted foe in the end. In fact, before Sunday's final, he'd even already done it once this year in Melbourne, winning a five-set, five-hour marathon over Stan Wawrinka in the Round of 16. And nearly every time he's been put into position to win a match like this one turned out to be, ever since he molded himself into true champion's form a few seasons ago, the effort has ended with the Serb clenching his fists and yelling, with the not-so-subtle look of a madman on his face. Or some variation thereof.

This Australian Open final was no different.

As the match began, and through its early stages, Murray seemed in fine position to become the first man to follow up his first career slam title, which he won in Flushing Meadows with a victory in the final over Djokovic, with his second crown in his very next slam appearance. Playing in his third straight slam final, the Scot was coming off what quite possibly was the best performance of his career -- a four-hour, five-set semifinal victory over Roger Federer, Murray's first slam win over the Swiss great.

In the semifinals, Murray showed that he'd fully taken the teachings of coach Ivan Lendl to heart since his breakthrough summer of last season, in which his first Wimbledon final was followed by winning Olympic Gold in London and then the U.S. Open, paring away any lingering doubts about the program that might have existed when he had such a hit-and-miss start to his '12 season. In the best shape of his life, sporting a more muscular and powerful game, but without having lost any of his great footspeed, Murray looked like a totally transformed player, in both body and mind two nights ago. Showing as much attitude in the face of Federer's greatness as he used to toward his Players Box inhabitants, Murray's big serve game (21 aces to 0 DFs's) was revelatory, and his willingness to aggressively go for winners exhilarating. After Federer took advantage of every small opportunity presented to him, winning two tie-break sets to extend to a 5th set a match that probably should have been a straight-sets win for the Scot. But, once there, Murray simply physically dominated him in the deciding set, showing that the confidence instilled in him over the past year by Lendl, and big-stage success, had made him capable of believing he could TAKE slam title #2, and not just hope that it might fall into his lap.

In the 1st set, Murray seemed up to the task. Against the best returner in the game, Murray never lost his serve (for his part, never did Djokovic), saving four break points to hold for 3-3, then a fifth in this next service game. Utilizing a big serve and big forehand combination, just like Lendl always loved, Murray managed to stay even with the two-time defending AO champ and world #1, then took the lead in the set-deciding tie-break. When the Serb opened the game with a DF, Murray grabbed the initiative, bashing a winner from the baseline as Djokovic's frustration mounted as his 1st set error total reached twenty-five. Murray led 4-0, and won 7-2.

In the 2nd set, Djokovic was still bothered by too many forehand errors, but he managed to erase a love/40 deficit to hold for 1-1. It would turn out to be the biggest moment of the set, and arguably the match as, again, neither man was broken in the next ten games, and the set went to another tie-break. There, at 2-2, Murray was set to deliver a 2nd serve, only to have to break his concentration and retrieve a tiny feather that had floated down from the Laver Arena rafters. He then went back to serve... and double-faulted to fall behind 3-2.

The match was never the same.

Now, let's not blame the poor little feather. But it IS true that within moments of that slight break in concentration, many flashes of the "old" Murray resurfaced. After falling behind 4-2 in in the tie-break, Murray alerted the chair umpire to call for a trainer, and he became increasingly infuriated with his own errors, cursing his efforts and looking toward the Players Box with anger. When Murray fell behind 6-3, he did so after losing his first 1st serve point of the match. Djokovic claimed the tie-break at 7-3 to knot a match in which twenty-four service games had ended in twenty-four holds (after the last two meetings between the two had included eighteen and seventeen breaks, respectively).

After the tie-break, Murray was treated for blisters on his feet, and his wincing facial expressions and increasing difficulty in changing directions after chasing down balls in the backcourt were apparent for the rest of the night. With Murray's game starting to wear down as a result, while Djokovic's cleaned up, the Scot was broken in game #8 to give the Serb a 5-3 lead. Djokovic served out the set one game later, still with a spotless record in service holds for the night, and having lost just four total points on serve in the 3rd set.

In the 4th, Murray began to grab at his hamstring after racing to the net to retrieve a drop shot, then battling to stop his momentum on his sore feet. He held after falling down love/30 in the first game of the set, but the match was now Djokovic's to win or lose. After saving a break point in game #2, Djokovic broke Murray again one game later. While the Serb looked stronger and fresher down the final stretch, Murray, physically lagging behind (be it because of injury, or the after-effects of the four-hour match vs. Federer), continually looked smaller and smaller in comparison. At the end of a long game, Murray double-faulted on break point and was broken yet again. As Djokovic continued forward with little trouble, he took a 5-1 lead, having won eight of nine games.

Murray had one final mini-surge, holding serve for 5-2 then going up 30/0 on Djokovic's serve in game #8. But when Djokovic's overhead shot pounded off the top of the net cord, then bounced a few inches onto Murray's side of the court, preventing the Scot from reaching triple break point, it was all over but for the final handshake. Obviously, this wasn't going to turn back in Murray's way, and the Serb's serve was never going to be broken on this night. Djokovic closed out the set at 6-2, taking the match, and immediately getting into a squatting position and issuing one of his by-now-patented bellows-with-wild-eyes-and-fists-clenched slam-ending celebrations.

Djokovic has now won as many Open era AO titles as both Federer and Andre Agassi, the latter of which who presented the defending champ with his trophy during the post-match ceremony. He's on a 21-match winning streak in Melbourne, and is 34-1 in his has five hard court slams. If he'd lost this match, Djokovic would have retained the #1 ranking, but be the only man in the Big 3-turned-Big 4 who wasn't the reigning champ at a slam. So, in a way, this win is sort of a justice-spreading necessity. I mean, if Novak had been ranked #1 without a slam win in more than a year, what would Jo-Wilfried think to say to explain it all? Hmmm, somehow I figure we're probably better off not knowing.

But while Djokovic's padding of his career resume is the headline here, I still tend to think that it's Murray's performance in Melbourne that is the biggest news. This time, he didn't exit an AO final ceremony with tears in his eyes about possibly never having a chance to win a slam. Now, he exits as a full-fledged member of a commanding Big 4 which seems unlikely to let another man past the front door, even while Rafa Nadal hasn't set foot on the court at an ATP event since last Wimbledon. After proving that his summer of '12 was not a short-term bubble-up, there's no reason to think that Murray won't be back many times for a shot at slam #2. And while his 1-5 career mark in major finals looks ugly now, it feels a safe bet to believe that it'll look at least a little better pretty soon.

Of course, with the presence and sometimes-effectiveness of Federer and Nadal showing signs of (at least) slight wear, there's a good chance Djokovic will once again be the player Murray will have to take down to continue to build upon his success. And when that moment arrives, the Scot would be smart to remember... never turn your back on Novak.

You will live to regret it. If you're lucky.

#1 Novak Djokovic/SRB def. #3 Andy Murray/GBR 6-7/7-6/6-3/6-2

#1 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) def. Haase/Sijsling (NED/NED) 6-3/6-4

Ebden/Gajdosova (AUS/AUS) def. Cermak/Hradecka (CZE/CZE) 6-3/7-5

#3 Nick Kyrgios/AUS def. Thanasi Kokkinakis/AUS 7-6/6-3

Andrijic/Mousley (AUS/AUS) def. Marterer/Mielder (GER/AUT) 6-3/7-6

#2 Shingo Kunieda/JPN def. #1 Stephane Houdet/FRA 6-2/6-0

#2 Jeremiasz/Kunieda (FRA/JPN) def. Olsson/Kellerman (SWE/AUS) 6-0/6-1

[Open era]
4...Andre Agassi
4...Roger Federer
3...Mats Wilander
6...Roy Emerson
4...Andre Agassi
4...Jack Crawford
4...Roger Federer
4...Ken Rosewall
4...Pat Wood
3...Rod Laver
3...Adrian Quist
3...Mats Wilander

24...Roger Federer, SUI (17-7)
16...Rafael Nadal, ESP (11-5)
6...ANDY MURRAY, GBR (1-5)
4...Lleyton Hewitt, AUS (2-2)

11...Todd Woodbridge & Mark Woodforde
7...Peter Fleming & John McEnroe
7...John Newcombe & Tony Roche #
* - also won 5 pre-Open era titles

20...BOB BRYAN, USA (0/20)
17...Roger Federer, SUI (17/0)
16...MIKE BRYAN, USA (0/16)
13...Leander Paes, IND (0/13)
12...Mahesh Bhupathi, IND (0/12)
11...Rafael Nadal, ESP (11/0)

All for now.

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