The mountain that faced the best man on the tour not to have a Major was herculean. Should Murray reach his third straight final in Melbourne, he would have to overcome world No2, Rafael Nadal, who beat him in all three of their Grand Slam semi-finals last year. And before he could even contemplate that,
Murray had to beat the world No1, and Novak Djokovic defeated him in their only previous Grand Slam meeting—the final on this court last year. That match was a two-and-a-half-hour three-setter to Djokovic. Their meeting this time would be almost twice that.
The first set blazed the trail for a match in which the receiver more often than the server seemed in control. Djokovic held the opening game but both men faced break points in the next four games.
They pounded all four corners of the court with clean, mirror-image ground-strokes and, two breaks of serve and half an hour later, they were back on level terms, but not for long.
Murray went three break points down in the sixth and a forehand into the net left him at 2-4. Djokovic closed the set 6-3, but it was no ordinary set, nor ordinary tennis.
Its nine games had taken 45 minutes, with rallies lasting, on average, more than seven shots apiece throughout.
And judging from the statistics, both were struggling to make outright winners—Djokovic had five and Murray four: an indication both of the outstanding return game of these two men but also the slowness of this year’s court. Both factors would continue to take an exhausting toll.
The second set began the same, with Murray broken immediately and, despite winning a 24-shot rally on the Djokovic serve, he failed to break back and very nearly went down a second break, too: He saved it with an ace.
That, together with the cooling effect of some ice around his neck at the next change of ends, seemed to invigorate the Murray game. He attacked the net on the first two points of the Djokovic serve.
The Serb slowed down his preparation with 13, then 14 bounces ahead of each serve, but it could not disturb the focus and precision hitting of Murray, and after 11 minutes, he broke to a roar of approval from the crowd.
Now with the Murray serve and forehand firing on all cylinders, Djokovic struggled to stay in the rallies. Murray made it three games in row and then set about the Djokovic serve again. A 30-shot rally and another forehand winner brought up break point, and it gave Murray a 4-2 lead.
Yet again, the run of play transferred to the receiver. Djokovic broke back with a ripping cross-court backhand winner, but he could not endure the most intense game yet: first a 41-shot mix of top spin and slice, down-the-line and cross court, all played with pin-point accuracy; and next, a 28-shot rally that finally yielded two more break points to Murray. A sizzling forehand winner, and he led 5-3, taking the set with a series of 130mph-plus serves.
By now the average rally length was up to eight shots but now the winner ratio was firmly in Murray’s favour, 14 to five.
With two hours played and only 18 games on the board, the brutal battle was only just beginning. Djokovic faced four break points on his opening game but held after 15 minutes. The Serb was moving at a glacial pace between points, apparently exhausted, but as Murray said afterwards, “Even if he looks tired or he’s breathing heavy, you just kind of got to put your foot down on the accelerator and not wait for him to miss.”
Before he knew it, Djokovic was 0-40 on serve again and a break took Murray into the lead for the first time, 2-1. The match was poised precisely at 74 points each: Time, then, for Djokovic to prove he was not as tired as his body language suggested. Helped by a string of loose shots from Murray, he broke straight back.
Djokovic survived another break point in the fifth and the ninth and, from looking down and out, he now looked a new man. With Murray serving at 4-5, Djokovic attacked the serve, raced the net, and brought up three set points. Murray, though, did not back off but held and then found some superb returns of serve to earn his own break. Now Murray served for the set—and he too was broken. It could only be decided by a tie-break.
Both ran down every ball as though their lives depended on it, and they changed ends at 3-3. An ace and a stunning sequence of forehands from Murray, however, took him to 6-3 and he served out with an ace. The set had taken an hour and half and Murray finished it only two points ahead: 53 to 51.
Having survived such a physical and mental battle, Murray let his focus slip—not unusual in this gladiatorial sport—and Djokovic, now fully focused and strong as an ox—seized the match by the throat. He broke Murray three times, the last game with four clean, winning returns to take the fourth set, 6-1, in 25 minutes. The Serb had scored 12 winners to Murray’s two and looked as fresh as a daisy.
Murray now had to withstand a constant attack on his serve and Djokovic made the breakthrough in the sixth.
Murray had exhausted all his line challenges but, despite going 2-5 down, he did not give up the bigger challenge. He held serve strongly and then won a 26-shot opening point before breaking Djokovic to love. By now, the Rod Laver crowd could barely contain themselves, for Murray held again to level at 5-5—and still he was not done.
One final purple patch brought him two break points but one last 29-shot rally pulled Djokovic back to deuce. He halted the Murray run, thumped his chest and went for the kill which, when it came, was swift: a break to 15, a 7-5 set and a contest that will find its place in the archive of the finest matches of 2012 if not of the decade.
It’s hard to know what Murray could have done better, for the difference came down to a few crucial shots, a break chance taken or missed, one net attack more or less, one fewer line challenge in the final set.
However, the evolution of a more confident and relaxed Murray continues: This was the best performance in his five-Slam sequence since last January and, in the intervening months, he has also notched up wins over Nadal and Djokovic in tournament finals and a clean sweep in the Asian swing.
That is all before his new coaching partnership with Ivan Lendl has barely got going and even so, Murray revealed he had already learned one vital lesson: “[Lendl] told me it was going to be painful, to prepare yourself mentally for that, to go through a lot of pain, a lot of tough points, to play when your legs are sore and your legs are burning.” And he did.
And, as he rightly added: “A different player, a different attitude to this time last year. I’m proud of the way I fought. There’s a fine line between being No1 and being three or four. That gap, I feel tonight I closed it.”
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge