January 9, 2017
Novak Djokovic ended Andy Murray’s 28-match winning run and fired out a warning in the build-up to the Aussie Open by playing his best tennis for months.
If Murray thought he could finally pick up an Aussie Open title without having to down an in-form Djokovic in the final, he will probably have to think again.
But tennis fans look sure to be the winners in 2017, as this long and intriguing rivalry is cranked up once more.
Novak took their bruising three-setter 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 to defend his Qatar ExxonMobil Open title in style. It was his first title since July – and Murray has finally brought out the best in the Serb once more.
Ironically, Djokovic should never have reached the final at all. At 2-6 down in the second-set tie-break against Fernando Verdasco the previous day, Djokovic had to save four consecutive match points and then a fifth for good measure.
It was a testament to Novak’s amazing warrior spirit that he came through that trial and was still able to see off Murray’s fight-back so soon afterwards.
Will Djokovic be able to handle the rigours of five-set matches in a Grand Slam tournament without cracking? Time will soon tell, but the indications are that he is now truly ready for that stiffer test at last.
Novak explained: ‘This was the best scenario I could ask for at the beginning of the season. Playing all five matches in this tournament and then three hours against the world number one. my biggest rival, and then winning a thrilling, marathon match. It was a really, really thrilling performance from both of us. Just a great way to start the year.’
Murray may not agree, even though he laughed off defeat at the net. He has now lost all 20 matches against Djokovic when Novak has won the first set. Psychologically, he seems to be falling into the bad old habits that have seen him lose all four of his Australian Open finals against Djokovic and five in all.
A smiling Andy comfortably explained how relaxed he feels about his dynamic with Djokovic. ‘We have known each other since we were eleven, so naturally we are friends off the court, even though we are rivals on it.’
Novak likes that just fine. And he compliments Murray every chance he gets. ‘He deserves to be world number one,’ insists Djokovic, who will be desperate to regain top spot in 2017, despite the flattery.
The longer Djokovic keeps Andy sweet, the longer Murray’s inferiority complex with regard to Novak seems to linger. It is for Andy himself to change something fundamental about his mindset.
After all, surely yet another defeat to Djokovic in an Australian Open final would be too much for anyone with a truly competitive spirit to bear?
It’s a fascinating situation and one tennis fans can’t get enough of, as Melbourne draws closer. And there was another surprise last weekend, when Kei Nishikori fell to a resurgent Grigor Dimitrov.
The enigmatic Bulgarian triumphed 6-2, 2-6, 6-3 in their Brisbane final. It means that he too is showing signs of returning to his best, something the tennis world welcomes with equal enthusiasm.
As for Nishikori, he didn’t do himself any favours by calling for a medical time-out after he had levelled the match. His willingness to sacrifice momentum in favour of treatment was understandable on a purely physical level. But some questioned his desire to win as a result.
No doubt Nishikori was putting fitness for Melbourne ahead of everything else. And the popular Japanese will be out to prove the doubters wrong at the biggest tournament of all Down Under.