Nothing in tennis matters more to Andy Murray than beating Novak Djokovic, although seeing off Tomas Berdych comes close. So a 10th defeat by the world No1 in 11 matches on the court a short drive from his second home, in Miami, surely leaves a scar that will take some healing.
For the second time in their past three matches Djokovic – in great shape to do the grand slam this year – did not allow Murray a game in the concluding set. The finish of the Miami Open was a nightmarish re-run of the Australian Open final, when the Serb also shut out the Scot.
That four-setter, which Murray knows he could have won, took three hours and 39 minutes; this championship decider lasted two hours and 46 minutes, and the first two sets also could have gone either way before the dispiriting denouement.
The champion celebrated his 7-6, 4-6, 6-0 victory on Sunday as humbly as was required. Murray also honoured his obligations.
“I’d like to congratulate Novak,” he said courtside, but if anyone detected gritted teeth they probably would have not been far from the actuality. “I have to keep working hard and hope it will come.”
Well, yes. But there is no denying the gap in ATP points and titles. Djokovic, 8-2 up in majors, is more than 8,000 points clear of Murray in the rankings, with Roger Federer, rising 34, closest and a good 3,000-plus behind the champ. Rafael Nadal left Florida mentally shot and clearly there is something amiss with the Spaniard, who is sliding south in the rankings at a worrying clip, also trailing by a confidence-squashing 8,000-plus points.
Murray, though, has much of his career in front of him. And he positively hungers for victory over the rival he knows better than he does any of his contemporaries, because their lives and their careers have run along such uncanny parallel lines since they met in the south of France when 11 years old. And, given their talent, they mostly only meet at the end of tournaments; every encounter is significant.
On Saturday in his home town, Dunblane, Murray marries his long-time partner Kim Sears. In a little over a month he turns 28; Djokovic, who married his long-time partner Jelena Ristic after winning Wimbledon last year, will celebrate his 28th birthday exactly a week after Murray. They are umbilically linked, a blessing as much as a curse, because such propinquity serves up constant comparison.
Whatever the public pretence by Djokovic that theirs is a relationship of mutual warmth, however, they are what Murray so aptly described a couple of years ago as no more than “professional friends”.
While there were many moments to savour in this final – some of Murray’s recovery work from behind the baseline defied description – consistency eluded him. His smash was a liability, his propensity to squander easy winners disturbing. No other player brings so much of both the best and the worst out of Murray.
It is difficult to gauge the psychic damage Djokovic has inflicted on Murray over the years. In winning 18 of 25 encounters overall Djokovic has always prevailed if he has won the first set, a statistic so chilling in its baldness it is impossible to ignore the debate as to why it should be so.
One reason the discussion fascinates seasoned observers is that Murray cannot hide his suffering; he is a psychoanalyst’s delight, a tightrope walker wearing greased shoes.
In a weird first set Murray won eight more points on Djokovic’s first serve, 13, than when receiving his second – which is utterly perverse: blowing the easier chances after grinding it out at the first time of asking. That, surely, is a concentration problem.
“So much good tennis,” his old coach Miles Maclagan said on Sky. Really?
How about so many blown opportunities at key moments, or how to make life unnecessarily difficult for yourself?
Djokovic, forever the Serbian panther, stretched his elastic body almost as much as Murray’s patience. This was more about Murray losing it than Djokovic grabbing the game by the throat. When Murray dumped a backhand into the net in the tie-break to hand Djokovic the first set, the Scot suddenly had the weight of their past on his shoulders.
The torture continued, of course, in the second set. Murray, favoured by the serving cycle, had to save four break points to hold from 15-40 and hold a 2-1 lead and struggled to shed the impression of vulnerability that was giving Djokovic heart.
The first time they met in Miami – in the semi-final eight years ago – Djokovic allowed Murray one game in the first set, none in the second. As the loser said on Sunday night, he has work still to do.
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