Five times before these same men had contested a Grand Slam final, three times before they had done so on this very court. Murray might have won at the US Open and Wimbledon, but in every meeting at the Australian Open, Djokovic had lifted the trophy.
This time, in the company of some of Australia’s most decorated champions—Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall—Djokovic was going for the record of one more Aussie, Roy Emerson, the most prolific winner among the Aussie trio. Fewer than three hours later, Djokovic had done it: six Australian singles titles in a straight sets master-class, 6-1, 7-5, 7-6(3).
For this tournament more than any other has drawn special performances from the Serb. He won his first Major here in 2008, and twice used his title runs here to launch near-perfect seasons.
In 2011, he did not lose a match until the French Open semis and ended the season with 10 titles—three of them Grand Slams—from 11 finals, a 70-6 run. Last year eclipsed even that: 11 titles from 15 finals, including championship runs at three Grand Slams and the World Tour Finals, 82 wins for just six losses.
Already this year, Djokovic had won the Doha title beating No6 Tomas Berdych and then No5 Rafael Nadal with relative ease, and this week, bar a peculiarly wayward five-setter against Gilles Simon, he had beaten the likes of Kei Nishikori and Roger Federer to reach a sixth Australian final.
As if that was not enough of a mountain for Murray to face in his latest confrontation, Djokovic had opened clear water in a rivalry that began in their junior days and had played out 30 times on the pro tour already. Djokovic led by 21-9, had won 10 of their last 11, and had beaten Murray six times in their seven meetings last year. The Serb was, in short, a clear and overwhelming favourite.
That Murray had reached the final again, however, was a mighty achievement: His wife is expecting their first child next week, and her father, also working in Melbourne, was hospitalised with heart problems during the tournament. So there had been, it is fair to say, distractions aplenty, yet Murray had come through some tough tests from the likes of No8 seed David Ferrer and the formidable all-court power of Milos Raonic.
Now in his fifth Australian final, Murray opened with a bang—a break point in the first game. It was a tough hold, but Djokovic survived and he immediately turned the tables to set up two break points: The Briton double faulted to give up the lead, 0-2.
Not until the sixth game, indeed, did Murray get on the scoreboard, as he hit error after error, and could not even get a toe-hold with his serve. He would end the set, two breaks adrift, with 15 points to the Serb’s 30, having won just six points on 16 serves. Djokovic was ahead, 6-1, in half an hour.
By the third game in the second set, Murray was starting to find his range rather better, but had to fight tooth and nail to avoid another early break. A double fault suggested nerves, as he mixed strong attacking plays with atypical errors, and then he was hit with an over-zealous ‘time violation’ on break point. He countered it with a two straight aces to hold onto the 12-minute game.
Djokovic, one of the most consistently clean strikers of the ball from the baseline, on both wings and to within inches of the sidelines, continued to test and probe, and his deceptively accurate and testing serve placement gave Murray little room to attack. Even against this impenetrable backboard, Murray scored some remarkable points—one in the fifth game combining drop-shot, lob chase, and winning pass: 3-2.
The Briton tried to be aggressive, stepping in whenever he could—though he was pinned back for much of the time—but an ever-rising tally of errors was again his downfall. Three in a row in the seventh game gave Djokovic the break. Murray made up for it with an immediate break back, courtesy of a rare drop shot followed by a backhand winner onto the line.
With the set already an hour old, Murray felt the heat of Djokovic’s meticulous, angled striking to face two more break points, but he held. However, he could not pull off the same trick the next time. From 40-0 up, Djokovic pulled back to deuce, and a gruelling 37-stroke rally saw Murray passed at the net. A backhand error, one of 34 errors in this set alone, conceded the vital break.
Djokovic opened the door just a crack with two double faults to bring up a break-back point but Murray hit a backhand long and netted a forehand: Djokovic had the set, 7-5.
The first game of the third looked like the end for Murray as he smashed an overhead into the net for 15-40. Djokovic duly produced the strike of the match, a running backhand pass round the post and onto the sideline for a winner and the break.
Murray certainly did not give up nor back off, trying to take the attack to the Serb. Too often he over-hit, as he did in missing a break chance in fourth game. But there were many signs the Murray could still make a contest of this, notably a smash to break back for 3-3. He made 14 points at the net, too, and dropped only four points on his first serve. But converting those statistics into winning games against Djokovic was a different matter. He would have to take on his nemesis in a tie-break.
An opening double fault and then another for 1-4, did not bode well for the Briton. A backhand wide made it 1-6, and Djokovic was not going to waver. He aced a full-stop to this latest episode in a remarkable Serbian story, 7-6(3), in under three hours.
It’s a victory that takes Djokovic into truly illustrious company. With 11 Majors, he has drawn level with Laver and Bjorn Borg, and though the man whose record he has now equalled, Emerson, was unable to present trophy after the tragic death of his son this week, Rosewall was a fitting alternative.
Murray, holding back the tears, concluded an emotional fifth final loss ‘Down Under’ with a message back home: “To my wife, Kim, you’ve been a legend the last two weeks: thanks for all the support. I’ll be on the next flight home.”
But the moment belonged to Djokovic. Now with a 38-1 record since losing the Cincinnati final to Federer—the man who also managed that only victory since—the super Serb looks set to launch another near-flawless season in which he will attempt to claim two huge milestones that Federer has yet to claim: the Calendar Slam and Olympic singles gold.
It would be a brave person who bet against him doing just that.