Angelique Kerber’s stunning upset over world number one Serena Williams was a timely reminder that even the implausible can manifest into reality on the tennis court. Even so, it was a little far-fetched to believe the Australian Open men’s final could replicate that historic and utterly gripping women’s decider.
Thus, it would appear, miracles do not happen on consecutive nights. Novak Djokovic, who is playing tennis about as well as humanly possible, defeated Andy Murray in straight sets in a predictable victory.
Most wise pundits expected Djokovic to win fairly comfortably – in four sets was the popular pick – but there was belief Murray could at least mount a serious challenge. After all, the renowned rivalry over the years has generally produced long close matches punctuated by relentless slugging from the baseline.
Truth be told, it was a disappointing match, an anti-climax, with Murray never really in it after a sluggish start where he humiliatingly lost the opening set 6-1.
This was entirely different to the early stages of Djokovic’s semi-final victory over Roger Federer where he mastered the sport to almost perfection. In the first set against Murray, the Serbian played controlled but hardly spectacular tennis. He didn’t need to shift gears because Murray was gifting him so many cheap points with an array of miscues.
Strangely, it was a subdued Murray who looked like he was ambling around the court in a trance. Perhaps off-court dramas combined with a gruelling semi-final had taken its toll on Murray. Still, it was particularly jarring to see the normally highly animated Murray look so flat.
There was a genuine prospect that the men’s final would be shorter than the women’s decider after Djokovic went up an early break in the second set. But flipping the script, the world number two fought back with trademark pluck over the next two sets but Djokovic was better in the big moments to win a match he never looked like losing.
Right now, Djokovic – who claimed his 11th major overall - is at the height of his prowess and at the juncture of his career where mind and body are in perfect sync. It is fatal gifting him easy points and a head start like Murray did.
But even the cruel-hearted would have to feel for Murray, who is still chasing an elusive Australian Open crown having now lost all five finals he’s contested. Four of them have been to Djokovic.
Murray has contested nine major finals overall for just two victories but one can’t point the finger at him choking on the big stage because all of his seven losses have been to Djokovic or Federer; he’s essentially been the underdog in each of these matches.
In basically any other era, Murray would have won many more slams. Murray has been essentially a top 5-player for the past eight years, displaying outstanding consistency throughout despite playing amid the daunting shadows of Djokovic, Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Watching Murray’s brilliantly put together game, where he has essentially no weakness apart from perhaps a tentative second serve, you would naturally assume he was in the range of a four-to-six time grand slam winner. He would probably have notched that tally if he was born maybe a decade earlier.
Murray has won the same amount of slams as Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin, players who hit their primes in the early 2000s and capitalised on the post Pete Sampras/pre Federer era when majors were being generously shared around. Few would argue Murray is a far more complete player than Hewitt and Safin but he has been stonewalled by three of the greatest players the game has ever seen.
Murray hasn’t even had the distinction of being world number one despite having such an indefatigable career, which at one point included 18 straight grand slam quarter finals appearances.
Still, despite another loss in a major final, Murray has firmed as the legitimate challenger to Djokovic’s likely overwhelming domination this year. You feel Federer probably can’t do it regularly, Nadal is too banged up, and dangerous players such as Wawrinka are simply unreliable.
Some highly astute judges, such as tennis legend John McEnroe, believe Murray is set for a career-best season after spearheading Great Britain to long-awaited Davis Cup glory last year. It’s easy to be swayed. In many respects his game has probably been underrated over the years.
His game is not as technically correct like Djokovic or aesthetically beautiful like Federer. Conversely, Murray’s style can be awkward and grinding. Djokovic may play like a tennis robot in his ability to continually hit shots, while Murray, able to do almost likewise, looks more like a malfunctioning robot due to the exhausting demands of his game.
The Scot moves jarringly but no one covers the court better bar Djokovic. He’s intelligent and can dictate so ruthlessly because of his awareness. Despite the injuries, and his body looking like it could break down at any moment, you sense Murray relishes nothing more than long points and matches.
Unfortunately, he has basically the same skill-set as Djokovic who is probably 10 percent better than Murray at all facets of the game. If this gap can’t be closed, it is unlikely that Murray can add to his tally of majors any time soon.
Murray has beaten Djokovic in finals of majors in the past, twice actually, but those victories feel like an eternity ago. Djokovic has raised the bar and his game has gone up a level.
There is much work to be done for Murray to bridge the gap. Importantly, he needs to improve his susceptible second serve and his forehand has seemingly lost venom since his peak years of 2012-13.
Another lingering shortcoming is his dubious temperament. Murray can often lose the plot seemingly out of nowhere, gesticulating and cursing to his team in the box. No player’s box has copped as much verbal punishment than the Murray camp.
Murray is so volatile that you feel he can implode any second. He should take heed of Djokovic who was once perceived as temperamental and mentally fragile. Those dark days seem like a distant memory now.
Murray may be world number two but the gulf behind Djokovic is widening. The gap in men’s tennis from number one to the rest has not been this vast since Federer was clearly ahead of the pack in the mid-2000s.
That is the brutal reality for Murray. It will be intriguing to see how he responds.
You feel Murray’s career legacy could be shaped by what eventuates in 2016.
First Published On : Feb 2, 2016 08:07 IST