French Open 2015: Murray and Djokovic fight for personal history… another day

Novak Djokovic was leading Andy Murray 3-6 3-6 7-5 3-3 when play was suspended during their French Open semi-final

Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, a British name was being carved with some regularity on tennis’s Major trophies.

The name was Fred Perry, and he would win Wimbledon and the US Open three times apiece but also claim one title at the Australian and the French championships, too.

Since those pre-war years, it has been a rare thing even to find the name of a British man on the runner-up trophy of one of tennis’s crown jewels: the last was, indeed, Henry ‘Bunny’ Austin at Wimbledon in 1938.

Until Andy Murray came along.

In 2008, Murray set British hearts beating just a little faster when he reached his first Grand Slam final at the US Open, aged just 21. He did it again in Australia in 2010, and the next year he repeated in Australia and reached the semis at the other three Grand Slams as well.

Come 2012, and he hit the jackpot, following his first Wimbledon final with Olympic gold and his first Major title in New York. Was it possible to become even more or a hero with his home fans? Yes—by winning Wimbledon itself—and yes, each time he was the first British man to win since Perry.

Murray’s mission this year at the French Open was to match Perry once more: to become the first British man to win at Roland Garros since 1935. Already he had become the first to reach three French semi-finals. But now, just to match Austin’s final run here in 1937, Murray would have to overcome the most formidable of opponents.

For despite being born in the same week as Murray, world No1 Novak Djokovic has opened clear water not just between himself and Murray but between himself and everyone else. Clear in the rankings by more than 4,500 points, he has eight Grand Slam titles, and this year put together a 40-2 win-loss record, unbeaten since the final of Dubai. He won the Australian title and all four Masters he entered, and perhaps most significant of all, he put out the nine-time and defending champion, Rafael Nadal, in the quarter-finals this week with unprecedented ease.

Now he was just two wins away from the title he so eagerly sought, the last of the four Majors that would make his career Grand Slam.

Were that not enough for Murray to contemplate, he had a seven-match losing streak against Djokovic dating back to that Wimbledon victory, and suffered a bruising defeat after standing at a tie-break set apiece in this year’s Australian final before going down 6-3, 6-0.

Their last match followed a similar pattern: all square after two sets before Djokovic surged to a 6-0 victory in Miami. Djokovic had also won both of their previous meetings on clay, in Monte Carlo seven years ago and in Rome in 2011, though that Rome semi was one of the matches of the year, which Djokovic finally edged in the third-set tie-breaker.

Both, though, arrived at this mouth-watering contest with flawless clay records and two clay titles each. Both, rightly, were brimming with confidence and playing aggressive tennis. Djokovic was favoured to win, but there was no doubting that Murray’s best-ever clay form had chins wagging. Even Djokovic had noticed: “He has improved on clay, no doubt about it. He’s moving better, serving very well, and he always had touch, one of the best ground-strokes in the game… He’s extremely talented. He’s also a great fighter and somebody that has a lot of experience playing in big matches.”

And very much in accord with previous Grand Slam encounters, this match would swing from one extreme to the other.

Djokovic captured the momentum early as the sun, mercifully, lost some of its mid-afternoon fire. Just as well, as the first game lasted seven-minutes, the second also went to deuce, the sixth as well, where Murray survived a break point. But Djokovic was finding his famed precision and ruthless tactical rhythm, and for all Murray’s aggressive intent, taking the ball early whenever possible, he went 0-40 down at 3-4 and Djokovic pounced. The Serb served out, 6-3, after 44 minutes.

Murray had done little wrong, making only 10 errors—the same as Djokovic—but unable to match the 17 winners of the world No1.

The second set was eerily similar, with the break coming a little sooner, in the fifth game, when Murray put a smash into the net and netted a backhand. Djokovic held for 4-2, and had the chance of a double break courtesy of another backhand error from Murray, but the Briton survived this time, only to concede the break in the ninth game with a wild smash, and the set, 6-3.

Murray continued to sail close to the wind in the third set. For all his attempts to take the ball early, he could make few real inroads. After two hours of play, Murray had still not worked a break point, but had fended off two more of his own to level at 3-3.

They edged to 5-5, and now Murray’s serve became a little more imposing, but it was his movement and creativity that earned him his breakthrough. He chased down a drop shot, raced back for a lob, and turned on a dime to make a remarkable forehand passing winner.

Murray was pumped, and he called on the crowd to back him. He then made two huge forehands to bring up his first break points, and with one more stunning backhand, he had the break.

It was the work of a moment to serve out the set, 7-5, to love. The place erupted, but there were storms brewing.

First a medical time out off court for Djokovic. Then he had Murray at 0-40, only to find himself outplayed through two of the longest rallies of the match for a hold—and instead, Murray broke to love.

The storm was not done. Murray played a loose game, smashed into the net and gave the break back. He almost gave up another break, too, but saved three break points to hold for 3-3. Now, though, the storm would have its way: with minutes to spare, play was halted as the thunder clouds blew in.

With the match thus poised, set to swing either way, Murray, Djokovic and the Philippe Chatrier crowd were sent home.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… but for whom, only Saturday would tell.

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