After Novak Djokovic effectively put paid to Roger Federer’s title prospects in 54 minutes, the time it took for the defending champion to claim a two-set lead in the semi-finals, Andy Murray will have been under no illusions about the need to make a good start to his fifth Australian Open final.
1) Bad start
All nine of his previous wins against the Serb had come after winning the first set. Murray would doubtless have been hoping to repeat that pattern, sowing early seeds of doubt in the mind of an opponent who had beaten him in three previous finals at Melbourne Park, just as he had done in the 2012 US Open final and at Wimbledon the following summer. For a moment, as he fought back from 30-0 down in the opening game to earn a break point on the Djokovic serve, it looked as though he might succeed. But with Murray struggling to find his range from the baseline, Djokovic quickly snuffed out the danger and went on to win the opening five games. With half an hour gone it was Murray, not Djokovic, contemplating the possibility that it might not be his day.
2) Poor serving
Pitted against the best returner in the game for a fourth time in five Australian Open finals, Murray needed to serve with variety, depth and consistency, especially on the first ball. But a poor opening service game, punctuated by a double fault at 15-40, set the tone for a dismal first set from Murray. Though Murray found the court with a highly respectable 69% of his first serves in the opener, he won less than half of those points. That was down to his own ragged baseline play and the contrasting early fluency of Djokovic, who swiftly settled into his customary rhythm off the ground. It is testimony to Murray’s doggedness that he went on to win 67% of the points on his first serve, hammering down 11 aces along the way. But it was a more familiar failing that really ended his hopes. Murray’s second serve has long been the weakest link in his game, but marked gains in speed and spin over the past year had fostered a belief that he was better equipped to face the world No1 this time out. It took all of half an hour for Djokovic to expose that reasoning as fallacy. Murray claimed just one point on his serve in the first set and a shockingly poor 35% overall. With stats like that, it is no surprise Djokovic was able to break five times in three sets.
3) Inconsistency from the back of the court
There is no quicker route back to the locker room than allowing Djokovic to dictate play from the baseline. Murray needed to play aggressively, and signalled his determination to do so virtually from the first ball of the warm-up. Yet there is a fine line between aggression and inconsistency. On a day when he lacked feel and flow, Murray tried his best to vary the tempo in the rallies, starting deep before working his way inside the baseline and opening the shoulders. In the second set, these changes of pace and power seemed to fluster Djokovic, rendering the Serb uncharacteristically passive at times. When Murray connected with his sliced backhand and fired some punishing two-handers crosscourt, the defending champion started to miss makeable balls. But Murray struggled to find his range off the backhand down the line, and in his anxiety to grasp the nettle he missed way too many forehands. An overall total of 64 unforced errors in three sets – compared with 28 over the five sets of his semi-final win against Milos Raonic – tells its own story.
4) Below par footwork
Among the enduring memories of Murray’s epic 2012 Australian Open semi-final against Djokovic is the astounding movement of two players who, along with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, have redefined the boundaries of what is deemed physically possible on a tennis court. Across five sets and almost as many hours, the indefatigable duo chased, harried and hustled their way around the Rod Laver Arena. This match was of a very different ilk. Murray is one of very few players who can match Djokovic physically, but on this occasion he looked uncharacteristically sluggish. The warning signs were there as early as the third game, when the scrambling Scot failed to run down an admittedly testing Djokovic drop shot. But Murray’s listlessness was evident in the plethora of missed forehands he racked up. On too many occasions, the tiny adjustments to his footwork that normally pass unnoticed were missing. A hangover from the physical rigours of his encounter with Raonic, perhaps, or the consequence of a late dash to watch his brother Jamie lift the men’s doubles title alongside Bruno Soares on Saturday night? Whatever the truth, on such fine margins are matches decided.
5) Mental frailty
Perhaps the most telling insight into Murray’s mental state came after the match, when he drew a line under an emotionally testing fortnight by paying a touching tribute to his wife, who is expecting their first child. His voice trembling, Murray said: “And to my wife Kim – I’m sure she’s going to be watching back home just now – you’ve been a legend the last few weeks, thank you for your support and I’ll be on the next flight home.” Kim’s father, Nigel Sears, collapsed in the stands on the middle Saturday and Murray admitted that his mind wandered in his subsequent match against Bernard Tomic. Did the emotional toll finally catch up with him against Djokovic? With so much going on in the background, it would have required a superhuman effort of willpower to step on court against the world No1 with a clear head, and it is perhaps unsurprising that Murray seemed mentally flat for the opening half hour. Yet the mind has mountains at the best of times against Djokovic – see the manner of Murray’s defeat to the Serb in last year’s final – and the Scot could ill afford to be less than 100% focused. “A lot’s been going on,” said Murray afterwards. “I started the last couple of matches quite slowly, I think, understandably in some respects. Obviously it’s not good to begin matches like that against someone like Novak. But I’m proud of the way I fought and managed to get myself back into the match and create chances for myself.” So he should be.
This article was written by Les Roopanarine, for theguardian.com on Sunday 31st January 2016 17.02 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010