2016 AUSTRALIAN OPEN

In stirring second set, precise Serb shows his competitive heart

The Australian Open final scoreline is a lie for in truth it was played over a single, divine 7-5 set yesterday. Andy Murray played it forcefully; Novak Djokovic still won it. How exceptionally resilient the Serb is as an athlete was clear in that second set from how brilliant the Scot was. How Murray pushed; how Djokovic resisted. For the benefit of mankind the Serb might want to donate some of his DNA so we can identify what unbreakable substance he is made of.

Every now and then comes a match that is not quite a classic but has an epic moment within it. A few dazzling holes of a golf round. A handful of perfect dives in a final. But this second set was more like a flurry of rounds in a boxing match: every punch thrown, every sinew spent.

The first set was over in a blink. Murray missed too many forehands and Djokovic returned too many Murray serves as if he had decoded where they were going even before his rival had decided. The score was 6-1 and, in a manner of speaking, Murray had improved. The last set he played against Djokovic here, in last year's final, ended 6-0.

Novak Djokovic stretches for a shot during his 6-1, 7-5, 7-6 (7-3) victory in the Australian Open final against Andy Murray yesterday. The straight-sets victory meant that Murray has lost five times in Australian Open finals.
Novak Djokovic stretches for a shot during his 6-1, 7-5, 7-6 (7-3) victory in the Australian Open final against Andy Murray yesterday. The straight-sets victory meant that Murray has lost five times in Australian Open finals. PHOTO: REUTERS

The first set took 30 minutes, the second took 80. In the very first game, Murray won a 27-shot rally and screamed "Come on". It was an invitation Djokovic could hardly resist.

If there is such a thing, this second set was unbearably good. Fans tend to hold their breath during rallies but this was an alarming proposition for both men were striking the ball as if locked in a long and brutal interrogation. Each man had the right answer and then a harder question. Eleven-shot rallies were to be found, many of 12, one of 17, a few of 18, some of 20, two of 21 and one of 36. It was breathless and breathtaking all at once.

Both men fenced and probed, backhands sliced and curled, forehands slapped and retrieved, hitting the precise inch they wanted on court with a ball struck at the highest speed. This was tough tennis.

Djokovic sprinted across the baseline and hit a backhand cross-court pass at full stretch. Murray hit a backhand - one of many - so hard that it stilled Djokovic and possibly burned the court. In one point, there were two drop shots, two lobs, a smash and a pass. Only here were great points quickly forgotten because they were replaced by other great points.

The Serb looks a child of fastidious preparation, a cousin of cyclists who carry their pillows on tour and runners like Mo Farah who celebrated his Olympic victory with his sole burger of the year.

Murray hit nine aces in the second set out of a match total of 12. He hit 21 winners in the set to Djokovic's eight. The Scot was aggressive, expressive, valiant and quick. He had to win the set but Djokovic never allows him anything in Australia.

At 5-5, Murray was 40-0 up on serve and still managed to lose the game and when the victorious Serb got to the changeover he sat like an exhausted boxer with a towel across his shoulders. As Jonny Wilkinson, the great rugby kicker, once wrote of competition: "When my heart's pumping so hard my shirt is moving."

Djokovic was now up two sets to love and he had not lost a five-set match since January 2014. Then he was a remarkable player, now he is an uncommon one. Since January 2015 he has been in 17 straight finals and "consistency" is an inadequate word. "No doubt," he said, "I am playing the tennis of my life in the last 15 months."

The Serb looks a child of fastidious preparation, a cousin of cyclists who carry their pillows on tour and runners like Mo Farah who celebrated his Olympic victory with his sole burger of the year. This tennis player is rather lean, too, considering his parents once ran a pizza restaurant.

Of course Djokovic works hard and follows a meticulous diet, but he also owns gifts and an extraordinary one is his precision - of movement, of idea, of shot. He comes from the tribe of the shooter who hits the bull's-eye 60 straight times and Stephen Curry who knocked 77 straights threes into a basket during practice. He's a tennis Tiger Woods, who reportedly could hit a ball - with his father standing a few feet away - which went straight up into the air and landed on his dad's head.

Such athletes need practice to do this, but most of the world couldn't do this even with practice. At times yesterday, Djokovic, a returning savant, would lunge for a serve and find his return landing a few inches from the baseline. It is a skill so fine it occasionally looks like magic.

Djokovic is fascinating - as athletes are in their prime - because he finds this precision on final Sundays like yesterday and first-round Mondays, in Melbourne and a few weeks ago in Doha, in the cold and in humidity, on slow courts and slick ones, and during first sets against Federer and Murray, both of which he won 6-1. Rivals say that he "can't miss" and who is he to disagree.

Djokovic is now tied with Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg on 11 Grand Slam titles. Barring an unforeseen end of the world, he will overtake them. Of course, last night a reporter mentioned to Djokovic that a Serbian fan had suggested that he run for president. Certainly a desolate Murray might vote for his nemesis to leave this game.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 01, 2016, with the headline 'In stirring second set, precise serve shows his competitive heart'. Print Edition | Subscribe