April 5, 2015
Novak Djokovic took Miami by storm in a three-set triumph over Andy Murray to make more history.
He became the first player to do the “double” of Indian Wells and Miami three times, he won his 22nd Masters and 51st career title. Quite simply, Djokovic remains by far the best in the world.
Novak said: ‘It was a great battle, I always enjoy playing against you Andy.’
The Brit couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to prevail against the best player in the world. And yet when it came to the crunch he crumbled – the same old story.
The Serb’s 7-6 (7-3), 4-6, 6-0 victory was his seventh successive win against Murray on any surface and his tenth successive win on hard courts against the brittle Scot.
The overall head-to-head now stands at 18-8, far less comprehensive and even more indicative of how dramatically Murray’s recent self-doubt has hampered his biggest matches.
Although Andy is about to return to world number three, his results against Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer haven’t been much better in recent times, and the excuse that he is playing in the golden era of tennis can wear a little thin when we know what rare talent he too possesses.
Something has to be done, unless Murray wishes to continue to go through the motions and settle for the safe respectability of second best. That may sound harsh, since Djokovic and his extraordinary defence would be enough to make most men submit eventually.
Yet Federer has shown in the last year or more that if you mount fierce attacks with sustained aggression against Djokovic, you still have a fighting chance. And everyone knows Murray has the ability to compete with and even beat Novak, if only the Brit showed a steelier will.
Once again Murray had the chances to end his miserable run against the Serb. Once again he squandered them, as if he no longer believes deep down that he deserves victory against the world number one, despite his own undoubted talent.
Twice in the first set Murray was a break up. Indeed he won eight points in a row as he held to love and broke to love to lead 4-3. But that’s when the Scot’s mental weakness surfaced and he threw away a promising position and the eventual tie-break.
Murray scrapped admirably to hit back and take the second set. But could he maintain that charge and keep Djokovic on the run? Did he really believe he could be better than Novak when it counted? Sadly, the answer came as no surprise. No matter how cleanly he is hitting the ball these days, Andy finds a way to lose to Novak and resorts to remonstrating with his team and with himself along the way, a familiar expression of despair.
The opening game of the final set saw Murray falter with a series of half-hearted smashes and a weak shot into the net. Just when he needed to stay strong, he didn’t. It was the same story in the third game, as Murray surrendered. Pretty soon he was 0-4 behind and the match was as good as over.
True, the Miami sun caused both players problems and made breaking serve easier at one end. Yet that was still no excuse for Murray losing the first four points of the first-set tie-break. And his unforced errors later in the breaker weren’t down to the blinding sun, but rather to lazy forehands that allowed Djokovic to cruise to a 7-3 rout.
Murray had never beaten Djokovic after losing the first set, so we knew roughly what to expect, even though we were treated to an unexpected twist in the plot. Andy’s second-set comeback had Novak struggling for composure, as if to remind us that he too is human. Yet we knew that the man with the most mental strength would win, and we knew the man the least mental strength would lose, and we always knew which was which.
Even after Djokovic argued with the crowd at 3-3, when they gave him a rough ride for showing annoyance at missing a smash, we knew Novak would regain his focus sooner or later. Even after Djokovic lost the second set 4-6, scared a ball-boy with a verbal tongue-lashing and received a ticking off from the umpire, we knew he would find what it took to reverse the momentum and win.
So it proved, and Djokovic simply had to demonstrate his superior will to win in order to close out the match in the third-set decider.
How does Murray rediscover the sort of mental strength that saw him win the US Open, the Olympics and Wimbledon at his glorious peak, in collaboration with the no-nonsense Ivan Lendl? Not by staying with coach Amelie Mauresmo, with whom he has it far too easy psychologically. Andy can put in as much hard work as he likes physically, it won’t make any difference unless he acquires a coach who will toughen him mentally and refuse to stand for anything but raw courage and fulfillment of potential.
Of course it may be that Murray is enjoying life as his wedding approaches, that he doesn’t feel he needs to put himself through a fresh examination of his character, that he has won enough already. In which case he may as well stay with coach Mauresmo and not even bother turning up for matches against Djokovic, because we all know how they will finish.
There is still time for Murray to get angry with himself before Wimbledon. Not on court, off court. He needs to summon the kind of anger you only get from the realisation that you are throwing some of your best years away. He needs to admit that a cushy relationship with your coach doesn’t work, not if performance under extreme pressure is where it’s at.
The ball is in Murray’s court. It has been for some time, though he believes he is making real progress.
Murray said: ‘Well done to Novak winning Australia, Indian Wells and Miami. I’m not quite there with Novak yet but I’m getting a bit closer and hopefully it will come. I’m sorry I couldn’t make more of a fight of it in the third set, my legs were tired.’
Meanwhile Serena Williams showed the kind of lasting ambition Murray seems to lack deep down, as she took her eighth title at Miami by defeating Carla Suarez Navarro 6-2, 6-0 earlier on the Easter Weekend. ‘It feels really good to have eight under my belt,’ Serena said. ‘I’d like to believe the older i get, the better I get.’
For some players, the truly great ones, tennis isn’t just about reaching the pinnacle, because staying there is so much harder, more formidable as a challenge, and therefore more satisfying when achieved.