May 26, 2013
Was it all because of the feather?
After a riveting first two sets that saw both players impenetrable on serve and with both stanzas culminating in tiebreakers, Novak Djokovic cruised to an anticlimactic victory over Andy Murray in the Australian Open final Sunday, 6-7(2), 7-6(3), 6-3, 6-2.
After what initially looked to be another five- or six-hour affair, especially after the first two sets elapsed two and a quarter hours, the match rushed to its inevitable conclusion the last two sets.
The turning point in the match came with Murray serving at 2-2 in the second set tiebreaker. Up to this time Murray was playing with a relaxed confidence that had the Scot on the cusp of taking a two-sets-to none lead. His second straight Slam title seemed a distinct probability – and with it, the legitimate claim to the throne of the best player in the world.
But then it – the feather - happened. After missing a first serve, Murray paused before hitting his second as a feather slowly and agonizingly drifted down from above, causing Murray to delay his motion. Murray snatched the feather in mid-air and toss it behind him- and then he proceeded to double fault and give Djokovic the mini-break.
It’s something that the average weekend recreational player has suffered through countless times, that of the momentary lapse of concentration resulting in an unspooling of one’s efforts.
It turns out that’s all Djokovic would require as he closed out the tiebreaker with ease and then tightened up his game and put on a clinic in what the 25-year-old Serb is brilliant at – controlled aggression.
Never allowing Murray to feel comfortable on his serve from that second set tiebreaker forward, Djokovic started to control all the long rallies and Murray, after looking quick and alert those first two sets, showed visible signs of fatigue and frustration as he time and again was unable to get the ball past Djokovic.
Additionally, once Djokovic took that second set to even the match, Murray appeared to abandon some of the strategy that he implemented brilliantly up to that point. Just as he had done against Roger Federer in the semifinals, Murray hit several aggressive down-the-line backhands early on against Djokovic, which let Murray control more points early in the match.
Murray also was adept at executing the tactic that is utterly critical when playing Djokovic – hitting balls deep down the middle of the court and not allowing Djokovic to get an angle on the ball and redirecting the point, something that no one does as well as Djokovic.
But as has been the case with Djokovic since he became the best player in the sport during his historic 2011 campaign, as the match wore on he seemed to win every rally that lasted more than 10 shots.
Aside from the customary backcourt impenetrability that is the essence of Djokovic’s game, he also displayed an unusually aggressive stance in the forecourt throughout the match. Usually Djokovic is not the one to take chances and approach the net, as his volley is the only part of his game that can be considered a weakness. To his great credit Djokovic won 35 of 41 points at the net, whereas Murray was only at net a total of 15 times.
For Murray, the image of him as being a talented but mercurial and moody player is prone to self-inflicted wounds and laziness is long gone. Ever since his hiring of Ivan Lendl – truly one of the great coach-student pairings in sports – Murray has shed his prior reputation and is clearly the No. 2 player in the world at this point. If he had followed up his Olympic and U.S. Open victories with an Australian title, he would have clearly been the top player, despite what any computer rankings would indicate.
And for Djokovic, he made history Sunday as he becomes the first man in the Open Era to claim three consecutive Australian Open titles. Just as Federer has dominated Wimbledon for nearly a decade and the French Open is Rafael Nadal’s kingdom, Australia is where Djokovic reasserts himself.
Just think if Djokovic hadn’t defeated Murray Sunday. Would there have been grumblings about how suddenly it’s Djokovic who hasn’t won a Slam in more than a year (his last Slam title was the 2012 Australian Open)? Yet with the victory Djokovic solidified his status as the sport's best player once again.
There’s only one thing left for Djokovic to accomplish - winning the French Open to complete the career slam. He’ll embark on that quest immediately after celebrating his sixth Slam title. And it just so happens that Nadal will finally return to action at a major at the French Open.
The anticipation starts now.