Aussie Open is Djokovic's house
MELBOURNE, Australia -- If life's draw keeps playing out this way, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, born a week apart almost 26 years ago and also born to pick apart each other's games, will contest many more Grand Slam championships.
They can't all be classics. This Australian Open final featured more tenacity than flash, and momentum that shifted oddly, first when a feather drifted onto the court on Murray's serve in the second set tiebreaker, then when his blistered foot -- a rarity for the third-seeded Scot -- shaved the edge off one of the best movers in tennis. Murray was loath to blame either for his loss. But he had to admit that it was novel for two men used to burglarizing each other's serves to play nearly three hours before converting a single break point.
Djokovic won his Open-era record third straight title here Sunday, 6-7 (2), 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-2, for his sixth major overall. The match wasn't nearly as tense as their five-set U.S. Open battle a few months ago or the marathon semi they played in Australia last year. But the world No. 1 said it was difficult enough to be worthy of a rivalry that started when they were kids.
"I think it went 2 hours, 20 minutes, the first two sets,'' Djokovic said, overestimating by just a few minutes. "I think that says enough about the intensity of the match. I kind of expected that. I knew that it's going to be physically very demanding, a lot of long rallies, so I needed to hang in there. I've done that.
"There was a few turning points in the match. Maybe one of them was the second game in the second set, when I was Love-40 against the breeze. He missed a few shots. I managed [to] have that crucial hold. After that, I felt just mentally a little bit lighter and more confident on the court than I've done in the first hour or so.''
Djokovic clawed to a few break points in the first set and Murray did the same in the second, and both times, the man who couldn't convert had the window shut on his fingers in the tiebreaker.
World No. 1 Djokovic looked like the more stiff-shouldered and discomfited of the two early on, which defied conventional wisdom heading into the match. It was Murray who'd had to wear out a determined Roger Federer in a five-set semifinal while Djokovic breezed by David Ferrer in an hour and a half.
The Serb roused the crowd with his customary acrobatics in the 68-minute first set. He traversed the doubles alley to shovel a spectacular backhand winner behind Murray in one game. In another, he dove 180 degrees to his right to rescue a forehand, then scrambled to his feet to win the rally on a drop volley. He kept a firm grip on his own serve, but committed an uncharacteristic 25 unforced errors in the set and harangued himself on changeovers, increasingly frustrated by his inability to pry Murray's serve from him in five chances.
Djokovic double-faulted on the first point of the tiebreaker and was never in it. His irritation carried over into the opening game of the second set as the hot-handed Murray pushed him into a Love-40 hole. But Djokovic recovered his equilibrium and the game, and that set followed the trend of the first with a series of routine holds. Murray lost only one point on his first serve.
At 2-all in the tiebreaker, Murray had just missed his first serve when a feather drifted into his line of vision, an unwanted gift from the omnipresent birds that circle, croak and roost in the framework of the open roof of Rod Laver Arena. He raised his hand to pause play and plucked the offending object off the court. He promptly missed the second -- and won just one more point, enabling Djokovic to even the match.
The distraction might have loomed larger from the stands than on the court.
"I thought it was a good idea to move it,'' Murray said. "Maybe it wasn't, because I obviously double-faulted.
"At this level it can come down to just a few points here or there. My probably biggest chance was at the beginning of the second set; didn't quite get it. When Novak had his chance at the end of the third, he got his.''
Murray had a gruesome-looking raw patch on his right foot treated before the third set. He said he's not usually prone to blisters, but shrugged off the idea that he was unduly hampered, although the naked eye would say otherwise. Murray's comment earlier in the week that he'd welcome a "painful" match -- meaning he hoped he and Djokovic would push each other to the limit and produce a compelling match -- rang ironically.
"I mean, [in] the U.S. Open final, I had two black toenails,'' Murray said. "It happens. It happens often, especially when you're doing that much running. It's just a bit sore when you're running around. You know, it's not like pulling a calf muscle or something. It just hurts when you run.''
Oh, only then. These two always try to yank each other around the court, so when Djokovic sensed Murray's vulnerability, he pressed harder, earning a triple break point with a whiplashing forehand. Murray saved two but then lashed a cross-court forehand that hit the net tape, hesitated and bounced back on Murray's side. That was all Djokovic required, and although Murray was able to finagle one last break point in the second game of the fourth set, the two-time defending champion was in command and the air went out of the proceedings.
Murray, the subject of much sporting psychoanalysis before he won the U.S. Open last year for his first Slam in five tries, is once again left to measure his progress in the feather-thin increments that matter at the top. He said he felt far more at ease walking onto the court here than he did emerging from the tunnel into Arthur Ashe Stadium in September 2012.
"The last few months have been the best tennis of my life,'' Murray said, ticking off his appearance in the Wimbledon final, his Olympic gold medal and his breakthrough in New York. "I know no one's ever won a Slam, the immediate [next] one after winning their first one. It's not the easiest thing to do. And I got extremely close I have to try and look at the positives of the last few months, and I think I'm going the right direction.''
But it's hard to be too comfortable in what has become Djokovic's house. "This is definitely my favorite Grand Slam,'' he said during the trophy ceremony, stating the happily obvious. This title might have come to him in somewhat anticlimactic fashion, but every act of a tennis season doesn't need to end with a cliffhanger.
Three more to go.