DOHA • Novak Djokovic made an immense statement in his bid to rule men's tennis again when he defeated Andy Murray, the man who deposed him as world No. 1, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, in an epic Qatar Open final in Doha on Saturday.
Looking back to near his peerless best at times in a match of searing quality, the Serb let three match points slip and had to repel a roaring Murray comeback before ending the Briton's 28-match, five-tournament winning streak.
Murray has still never beaten Djokovic after losing the first set.
In their first meeting since Murray won their season-ending climax at the ATP World Tour finals in November, the Briton ran into a rejuvenated Djokovic who, despite having problems with his racket hand and receiving two warnings for his behaviour, prevailed thrillingly in their 36th contest.
It was a perfect tonic for the world No. 2 in his build-up to the defence of his Australian Open title in Melbourne - the tournament starts next Monday - and provided food for thought for Murray, who lost for the 25th time against his old rival.
Murray, who lost a competitive match for the first time since September, said: "It was a tough one to lose, but a great way to start the year. I think it was high-level tennis."
PUSHING EACH OTHER
I hope we are going to play against each other. We make each other work hard and improve and continuously work on our games.
NOVAK DJOKOVIC, world No. 2, looking forward to another meeting with top-ranked Andy Murray.
The Scot dismissed the idea that this loss will have any impact on his attempt to win the Australian Open for the first time. Murray lost Melbourne finals in 2010, 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2016 - four of those to Djokovic.
"It's disappointing to lose for sure," he said. "I have a chance to win the Australian Open still.
"I think physically it was a good test to start the year, and I did good here. My body feels all right just now, so that's positive.
"Still think there are things I can do better. You know, I wasn't that clinical on break points this week, which maybe that comes with playing a few more matches."
Djokovic, who has won the Australian Open five times in the last six years, said Doha had provided perfect preparation for the year's first Grand Slam in Melbourne.
"Best scenario I could ask for beginning of the season," he said.
"Playing five matches in this tournament and then three hours against the No. 1 in the world, biggest rival, and winning in a thrilling marathon match is something that definitely can serve as a positive incentive for what's coming up in Australia."
The Serb also said that he expects further battles with Murray, possibly in the final in Melbourne.
"I hope we are going to play against each other," he said. "We make each other work hard and improve and continuously work on our games and ourselves. We strive to get better, both of us."
He later said he did not intentionally hit a ball into the crowd - an incident which threatened to take the gloss off his victory.
The incident happened in the sixth game of the first set when Djokovic, upset at losing a point, fired a ball into the stands which apparently struck a female spectator.
He received a warning for the incident and a further warning for smashing his racket in the second set, costing him a point penalty.
Djokovic said he was unaware that the ball had hit someone and said it was an accident.
"It was not intentional at all," he said. "Of course people get hit, especially in the first rows, from big serves and so forth."
Pressed on whether it was acceptable behaviour, he said no and added: "I definitely didn't want to hit the ball at anybody.
"I have to be more careful, I guess, in the future."
But he admitted that the consequences could have been far worse, in terms of the on-court penalty he received.
It is not the first time he has been involved in such an incident.
Last year at the French Open, the Serb admitted he was lucky not to be disqualified in his quarter-final against Tomas Berdych.
Then, frustrated at missing a break point, he smashed his racket into the ground but it slipped out of his grasp and nearly hit a line judge, who was forced to take evasive action.
THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS