May 16, 2016
Finally, Andy Murray has beaten Novak Djokovic again – and in some style.
Coming just before Roland Garros, the timing could hardly be better. And Murray’s serve has rarely looked stronger.
The Brit’s 6-3, 6-3 win was emphatic and extraordinary, given that Djokovic had claimed no fewer than twelve of their last thirteen encounters, going into their Italian Open final in Rome.
The timing is also perfect, just before Roland Garros, and the 29-year-old Scot will probably never have a better opportunity to add the French to his Grand Slam haul.
Murray’s victory over Novak prompted him to say something surprising about the state of his game on clay in the past.
‘I probably didn’t have enough self-belief.’
From a top-level sportsman, it is a remarkable confession. With practically all the sports psychologists and coaches in the world to choose from, Murray admitted what many have been saying for years, that he hadn’t found the correct mental approach to bring the consistent best out of his game – on any surface.
Part of that new-found self-belief might have something to do with the increased sense of responsibility for your own actions that you gain from parting with your coach. There is no one else to blame. Time to step up.
And boy, Murray stepped up under the Roman clouds, taking control with an aggressive self-assurance we rarely see from him, even though he is one of the world’s most talented players.
But before we get too carried away, before we start tipping Murray for a Roland Garros-Wimbledon double, there are other factors to consider here.
Djokovic had been involved in a draining semi-final fight against the magnificent Kei Nishikori until 11.15pm the previous night, and there had been the suggestion of a slight ankle injury. Novak showed typical fighting spirit to come back from 1-3 down in the final-set tie-break against the hero of Japan, to reach the Roman final.
But there can be little doubt that Nishikori softened Djokovic up somewhat, and left him there for the taking when conditions weren’t to his liking against Murray.
And to say that the surface wasn’t to Novak’s liking for the final against Murray is something of an understatement.
At one stage the Serb was even heard to say: ‘I don’t want to play any more!’ He had already thrown a racquet and been punished by the umpire, losing his legendary cool and composure earlier than expected.
So what was the problem? The rain that had fallen earlier had made the clay treacherous, according to Djokovic, who explained: ‘We played on a very, heavy court because it was raining for an hour before and it was very muddy behind the baseline.
‘In three games I could have literally twisted my ankle two or three times. I asked [the umpire]: “Is it necessary that somebody gets injured before he realises what’s going on?”
‘We can laugh about it now but it’s not just a question of whether or not you’re going to play better, win or lose. It’s a matter of keeping yourself healthy.’
So Novak, you could argue, opted for damage limitation just before one of the biggest tournaments of the year, having felt physically shattered and somewhat endangered.
Whether you write off his version as a bunch of excuses or whether you believe there is some substance to them – and we tend to go with the latter – nothing should be allowed to detract too much from Murray’s superb victory. Even Novak graciously admitted later that Andy was just too good on the day.
So what must Murray do now? He must continue to tell himself that this was indeed a big victory for him – because it was.
He must shake off that inferiority complex, the one he has harboured for too long against Djokovic, and bin it once and for all, for now he has good reason.
Andy must also recognise that this wasn’t Novak at the very height of his mental and physical powers – and there may well be a backlash in Paris. Djokovic will probably be ready to put more pressure on Murray’s improving serve in France.
But the Brit’s attitude now has to be: so what? It should be about Andy and what he can do now, bolstered by a new self-belief, just in time for the European summer.
He should stop worrying about how good Novak is and think about how good he, Andy Murray, could really be, now that his mind shows signs of matching his body for strength and resilience.
However the action unfolds at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, it is an indisputable fact that Rome has left men’s tennis perfectly poised for maximum drama.
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