On Friday, our assessment of Novak Djokovic’s semifinal victory over Stan Wawrinka at the 2015 Australian Open contained the central thesis that Wawrinka lost the match more than Djokovic won it. That happens in sports. Sometimes, you win because you excel. Other times, you win because your opponent falters. Sometimes, you lose because you stunk up the joint. Other times, you lose because your opponent was just too good.
In Sunday’s Australian Open final, Djokovic and Andy Murray both won and lost to a roughly equal extent. Djokovic legitimately outplayed and outshone Murray over the final 1.5 sets of the match, speeding away for a 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-0 victory in a contest whose first two sets took more than two and a half hours to complete. That the victory was sealed in under four hours speaks to Djokovic’s ability to tidy up his game midway through set three. However, it has to be said that if Murray had not committed several conspicuously ordinary errors in meaningful moments, Djokovic might not have been in position to take over the match with excellent tennis after the three-hour mark of competition.
First things first:
Remember how Djokovic hit as many winners as I do at the local tennis courts in the fourth set of his semifinal survival act against Wawrinka?
Well, that Djokovic didn’t show up in the first five games of the match, and it didn’t show up in the final 1.5 sets, when the world’s top-ranked player hit the ball authoritatively and bossed Murray around the court.
Djokovic found the ability to hit the ball with conviction at the right times in this match, especially in the third and fourth sets, when he put to rest the notion that a five-hour marathon would unfold. After two sets, the match was on pace to complete four sets in 5:04, this on the heels of a 4:50 semifinal between the two men in 2012. However, Djokovic found form and focus at 3-all in the third, executing a superb drop volley to save break point and ultimately hold for 4-3. That was the hinge point of the proceedings. Djokovic crushed a second-serve return to start Murray’s next service game, and the sixth-seeded Scotsman promptly began to feel match pressure. Murray donated a couple of points in that 3-4 service game, and before he knew it, Djokovic had tucked away a 2-sets-to-1 lead, 6-3 in the third. Djokovic won the last nine games of the match, and he did so by putting his boot on Murray’s neck. Djokovic certainly won in this stage of the match — that much is certain.
In the first two and a half sets of this four-set battle, Murray found himself in control of the flow of play, only to cede the moment to his opponent precisely when he was physically struggling.
Djokovic, as mentioned above, played really well — very much unlike his wobbly semifinal win over Wawrinka — in some portions of this match. One such portion was the first five-game sequence of this final. However, the match took on a different texture soon afterward.
This happened as the first set continued:
Here is the Novak fall from earlier. Novak getting treatment on thumb. https://t.co/ktvZ97XhjB
— Tony (@tjc05) February 1, 2015
Djokovic was not the same player for the rest of the first set. He could not hit through the court with a racquet hand he didn’t fully trust, understandably enough. The strange and bipolar set — in what was a strange and bipolar match, far better than the awful Djokovic-Wawrinka match but nowhere close to the Federer-Nadal final at this tournament in 2009 — meandered into a tiebreaker, and that’s really when Murray lost hold of this match, a grand chance to capture the third leg of tennis’s Grand Slam.
At 4-2 in the first-set tiebreaker, Murray double faulted. At 4-3 on Djokovic’s serve, Murray hit a routine forehand error — remember, this at a time when Djokovic couldn’t hit through the court and Murray stood to win points as long as he could keep the ball in play. At 4-4, Murray got a short ball, and his normally reliable two-handed backhand spanked a shot well beyond the baseline. Murray won the 4-5 service point with a composed swinging volley, and with a serve at 5-5 against an opponent who had pretty much become a bystander, Murray still had to fancy his chances.
At 5-5, Murray controlled the point and was about to set up an easy overhead. He just had to keep a regulation volley in the court. He could not. Djokovic gained set point at 6-5, whereupon Murray netted a return on an average second serve. Murray had the set in his hand but gave it away. Yes, he came back to win a second-set tiebreak, but after all the pushing and climbing he’d done over the course of 2:32, Murray was merely tied. He had to find a lot more focus to ultimately get the job done, and so when he took a 2-0 lead in set three against a version of Djokovic that was struggling to produce convincing tennis, his battle was just beginning.
Serving at 2-1 in the third, what happened at the end of the first-set tiebreaker again ambushed Murray. Simply needing to keep balls in play — given the form of his opponent — Murray could not do so. That was the last point in the match when the Scotsman held a true upper hand. As soon as Djokovic made that marvelous drop volley to save break point at 3-all in the third, the Serbian superstar got his groove back, and the rest — including Murray — was history.
Djokovic closed like the eight-time major champion and (now) five-time Australian Open champion he is. Djokovic has more Australian Open titles in the Open Era of men’s tennis than anyone else, surpassing Roger Federer and Andre Agassi (four apiece). Murray, meanwhile, dropped to 0-4 in Australian Open finals (three of them against Djokovic), the central reason his record in eight major finals is now 2-6. Murray’s record against Djokovic in major finals fell to 2-3.
In many ways, the theme of this final in a larger context is that the scales of history have balanced out.
It is one of the most inexplicable mysteries in this current era of men’s tennis that Novak Djokovic has won only one U.S. Open championship. Djokovic is a hardcourt beast, as good a mover on the surface as tennis has ever seen. The consistency of his strokes and his ability to slide on the court make his game much more compatible with the evenness of a hardcourt, compared to the grass of Wimbledon. Yet, Djokovic somehow has more Wimbledons (2) than U.S. Opens (1). It boggles the mind. Djokovic fans and neutral pundits alike cannot believe this is real… but it is.
Heading into last year’s Wimbledon final against Federer, Djokovic owned a losing record (6-7) in major finals. There was a sense that he had to start winning these matches in order to truly fulfill his career’s immense promise. With Nadal either injured or no longer a consistent grass-court player, and with Federer getting older, this is supposed to be Djokovic’s time, the final two- or three-year period in which he can substantially enhance his legacy.
Djokovic did beat Federer in his 14th major final, putting to rest the notion that he had permanently lost a winning edge in the most defining moments of an elite player’s tennis season. However, when he lost to Kei Nishikori in the U.S. Open semifinals — with Marin Cilic looming in the final (though Djokovic couldn’t have known it at the time; his semifinal was played first that day in New York…) — Djokovic blew a massive opportunity to add to his major-tournament title haul. What was gained at Wimbledon could not be taken away from him, but New York left Djokovic wondering “what might have been” at the end of 2014.
As 2015 began, Djokovic had to set the record straight, especially after losing to Wawrinka in the 2014 Australian Open quarterfinals, interrupting his dominance of the Southern Hemisphere’s major championship. That he beat Wawrinka in the semis without playing particularly well only magnifies the extent to which Melbourne has compensated for what New York has failed to give him. That he beat Murray in the final — helped in key situations by failures of nerve from his opponent — represents a clear historical counterbalance to the 2012 U.S. Open final he lost to the Scot.
From 2012 through 2014, Novak Djokovic won only one major tournament per season. We say “only” not because such seasons were unacceptable — we should all have such “problems” as professional tennis players — but because athletes blessed with such talent play not for the money or the fame, but for championships. Djokovic witnessed many championships elude his grasp — mostly against Rafael Nadal, but sometimes agaisnt Murray and also against Federer over the previous three years.
What does this victory — attained without playing A-level tennis on a sustained basis (but often enough to make the difference) — mean for Novak Djokovic? We’ll have to let the rest of 2015 play out to get the full answer, but right now, it suggests that a two-major year might be in front of him, and that if he can maintain good health for this next three-year window in his career, he could win 13 majors, which would place him fourth all-time behind Federer, Nadal, and Pete Sampras.
If Djokovic can do that, he would — given the quality of the competition in this era — make an extremely strong case as a top-10 all-time male tennis player, with the possibility that he could be a part of the top five.
Not a bad career, that.
As for Murray, the notion of balance applies in a different way. This was simultaneously a fantastic Australian Open and yet one which will leave a bitter taste in his mouth. Making the final — his first major final since Wimbledon of 2013 — is, on its face, a great result and the validation of his offseason work with coach Amelie Mauresmo. Murray has quickly left behind the frail ghost of a player who nearly got double-bageled by Federer in the ATP World Tour Finals under three months ago in London. Yet, the way Murray not only coughed up routine errors on key points in this match, but berated himself and complained about Djokovic during this drawn-out drama, will lend a puzzling dimension to his tennis story.
Murray is so composed, sober, and thoughtful. He is a student of tennis. He’s gotten where he is on the basis of a very high tennis IQ. That he comes so unglued during matches is one thing; that these losses of control negatively affect his performance at age 27, in the prime of his career, do not make it easier to portray Murray in a favorable light. He is part of the Big Four, but he is so overwhelmingly set apart as the fourth wheel in that group that it’s easy to want to refer to a “Big Three plus Murray.” Both views are valid, but matches like this one reinforce the “Big Three” line of thought.
In the interests of putting forth a balanced appraisal of his career, one can’t view Murray’s failures in isolation from his successes. If Murray falls short of the Big Three, he also does eclipse the rest of the men’s tennis community by a considerable distance.
When Murray beat Tomas Berdych in the semifinals, he ensured that Berdych would not make a second major final. This means that Berdych, Juan Martin del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, David Ferrer, Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka, and Marin Cilic — other members of the top 12 on the ATP Tour at the moment — have all made one and only one major final.
Murray, with his march to the final in Melbourne, has made eight final appearances. That’s in a separate league relative to those seven peers on tour. Murray is “above” in men’s tennis as well as he’s “below,” if not more so. It’s just that history remembers champions more than runners-up — it’s not fair that it does, but it’s the way the world (unfortunately) works. Murray deserves a ton of credit and a generous amount of praise for what he achieved this past fortnight, and for what he’s done in his career.
It’s just not on the same plane as what Federer and Nadal have done in the past, and it’s not nearly as good as what Novak Djokovic is doing in the present tense.
A balanced perspective — it’s necessary for Novak Djokovic and equally so for Andy Murray, in their own markedly different situations following a fascinating men’s final in Australia.
One statement which doesn’t require any balance at all is this: With eight major titles before his 28th birthday this May, Novak Djokovic has increased the extent to which he can make a run at the highest reaches of tennis history, something which couldn’t have been said with the same degree of confidence 12 months ago at this time.