Five things about Novak Djokovic’s five-set victory over Andy Murray in the semi-finals of the Australian Open.
Here was a match which exploded the idea that Andy Murray cannot perform when it matters.
A few times in the past, Murray had gone deep into slams, and then when it has really mattered, he has got burned, by the white heat of his opponent’s talent, but also by the pressures of the occasion and by his own timidity. Not this time. Under the arc-lights of the Rod Laver Arena, Murray was killing the myth that he is a callow, introverted underachiever at the majors.
For the best part of almost five hours, Murray was going for his shots against the world number one and defending champion, he was taking big and lusty swings of his racket. Anyone with a Saltire painted on their face – and a few others, too – would have been alarmed at how Murray had ‘dropped out’ during the fourth set. It was in the fifth set, though, when Murray really impressed (having trailed 2-5, he had points at 5-all to break Djokovic, could not take them, and eventually lost 5-7).
Yes, Murray still only has two victories from his 12 meetings with Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer at the slams (and those two wins came against Nadal, in the semi-finals of the 2008 US Open and in the quarter-finals of the 2010 Australian Open, when the Majorcan was struggling physically). But this was 12 months and a whole world away from the only other occasion that Murray and Djokovic had played at the slams, the Serbian’s lop-sided, straight-sets victory in last season’s Australian Open final. Spool back and you can find a few bad defeats in Murray’s grand slam record; this, though, was a great defeat. In fact, it was the greatest defeat of Murray’s tennis life. One of the oldest caricatures in tennis is the brave British loser, a label that has been applied to almost every journeyman whose games have flared for one afternoon a year on the Wimbledon grass. Murray is in a wholly different category. He lost, but he showed that he has what it takes – both in terms of talent, and mental fortitude – to win a grand slam, even in this era. For that transformation, please credit the man Murray calls ‘Mr Lendl’. And also credit Murray himself.
Yes, there were some fraught moments, and he used the f-word, but no one should have expected anything else. And, on occasion, the f-word of choice was ‘fight’. Significantly, when Murray was venting, it did not appear to be directed at Lendl or anyone else in his box. Even at the moments of greatest tension, Murray kept some control over his emotions.
There cannot be another post-Australian Open funk.
The past two seasons, Murray has gone into a death-spiral after the Australian Open, such has been the lingering disappointment. Not for a third year. Please.
Ignore Novak Djokovic’s hanky.
As someone noted during the middle part of this match, it looked like a return to the Gluten Years, going back to the time when the Serbian was eating wheat, when he was known for his physical vulnerabilities. Djokovic was regularly down on his haunches, he was struggling for oxygen, and he was blowing his nose during the changeovers. But Djokovic was fine (just as he had been fine in his quarter-final against David Ferrer when he had also been breathing hard). This semi-final was about Murray’s strength of character, but of course it was also about Djokovic’s. Djokovic has been having troubles in Melbourne with that old enemy, allergies. Many players would have folded when they were down breakpoints at 5-5 in the fifth set, having earlier been broken to love when serving for a place in the final. Not Djokovic, and on Sunday he will be trying to win his third successive grand slam title, against the man, Rafael Nadal, he beat in the Wimbledon and US Open finals.
No need, no need at all, to pine for Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
This was a match filled with U-turns in momentum, emotion and psychology, and breaks of serve. For the first set and a half, there were a few in the Rod Laver Arena, and watching on television, who were disappointed that the second semi-final lacked the drama of Nadal-Federer. But that all changed after Murray worked his way into the match. The reason for Murray’s slow start could well have been that he had had such an easy ride to the semis, and then suddenly he found himself up ‘Nole’. In those early stages, he hadn’t helped himself with too many unforced errors, with double-faults and mistakes off the ground. But when Murray got into this, everything changed. He even Slam-dunked Like Sampras. This was close to five hours of fabulous entertainment (when Murray levelled at 5-all in the fifth set, the only two people still seated were the umpire and ‘Mr Lendl’). “Thank you for staying so late, sir,” Djokovic said during his on-court interview, looking up the watching Rod Laver, but it was not as if the Australian, or anyone else sitting in the stadium named after him, was going to slope off before this reached its conclusion. This was better than Nadal-Federer.
Nadal would have enjoyed this.
It was after midnight by the time Djokovic reached the final. Nadal, whose victory over Federer came on Thursday evening, is going to have to find a way of turning around his run against Djokovic – they played six times last season, and Djokovic won every one of them.