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February 1, 2015

Novak Djokovic won his eighth Grand Slam title by defeating Andy Murray 7-6 (7-5), 6-7 (4-7), 6-3, 6-0 in a dramatic final in Melbourne. You had to hand it to the popular Serb, he forced himself through the toughest moments, even though he was not in sparkling form by his own extraordinary standards. The man with the most mental strength won. By the end, Murray had practically collapsed in that department.


A swollen thumb, a dodgy ankle, psychological trickery and the usual stunning elasticity; Djokovic used everything he had and everything that was happening to him and somehow turned it to his own advantage. In doing so he also turned an Australian Slam in his favour for a record fifth time, when the title might have been beyond him against a more self-assured opponent.


Such is the stuff of champions. You do what it takes. Andy Murray take note. More cunning, composure and grit is what you need at the very highest level if you are going to add to your hard-earned glories of recent years. Less negative energy, less swearing. Prolonged meltdowns win you nothing. Murray still earned our respect for coming so close, of course. Yet his talent merits even greater rewards.                                                                                                                    


Murray will be kicking himself in frustration. This was his golden chance to add a third Slam to his collection. Djokovic was there for the taking so many times. Andy should have been two sets up. Yet somewhere deep down he still lacks the self-belief to become a true great, much as we admire him. Inevitably, given that Achilles heel, he sank to a fourth Australian final defeat, a painful loss for all his passionate supporters around the world, simply for the manner of his downfall.


Murray led 2-0 and 4-2 in the first-set tie-break, he had a set point at 5-4 in the second; but the prospect of success seemed to send him into such a wobble that you just wondered what was coming next. To be fair to Andy, he took that second set eventually. Yet he squandered an early break in the third, another break point in the middle of that set, and we longed for someone to give Murray the ruthless consistency you need to become a serial, habitual winner. Will Amelie Mauresmo ever be able to do it? You have to wonder.                                            


It was hard to escape the feeling that Murray had beaten himself, something an experienced 27-year-old should no longer be doing. Make no mistake, this was not an unbeatable Djokovic. Yet the world number one still had what it took to take his fifth Aussie Open title. Call it a winning habit, or the defiant endurance you need to stay in a match when you’re not playing well. The result was the same.


The first set was full of vulnerable service games and, it has to be said, chances for Murray. There were four breaks in the first nine games and Murray should have had his first break in game three. He had Djokovic 0-40 and might have seized on two second serves, only to make errors himself and squander the glorious opportunity.


To make matters worse for the Scot, he was broken in the very next game as the Serb powered to a 4-1 lead. Murray clawed his way back but Novak was still serving for the first set at 5-3. Murray broke with admirable defiance and levelled at 5-5.


By then Djokovic was seeking medical help for a swollen thumb, hurt when it was trapped between racquet and floor as he came in for a drop-shot. He also complained to the umpire about crowd noise during a rally and seemed generally unhappy. At that point you sensed that Murray might take the first set. Yet at the very next changeover it was Murray’s turn to moan about movement in the stadium tunnel.


Which star’s concentration would go completely, which player’s nerve would hold when it mattered? It came down to a tie-break and Djokovic double-faulted on the very first point. Murray had a chance to go 3-0 but chose an over-optimistic lob and we were back on serve. Murray found a mini-break for 3-2, fired a killer back-hand for 4-2 but then the wheels fell off.


murray-sundayMurray double-faulted then produced an unforced error on serve for 4-4. Another put Djokovic in control, a reward for his calmer approach to the extreme pressure. Murray missed an easy volley to put the breaker back on serve and fired a simple back-hand into the net to seal his first-set fate. Djokovic could probably hardly believe his luck to come out 7-5. But some of his defence had been awesome.


Murray’s wastefulness had at least made him angry, and that’s often when he plays his best tennis. The 2013 Wimbledon champion took a 2-0 lead in the second and Djokovic seemed to be complaining about an ankle strain. But that ailment didn’t prevent Novak from showing some masterful touches in the third game as he broke back.


Andy swore in frustration at his latest slip-up, came back out and squandered yet another promising position when he had Djokovic 0-30. You sensed it just wasn’t going to be the Brit’s day. For whatever reason, the mental strength wasn’t there for long enough periods, though he wasn’t done just yet. Suddenly Novak was 4-2 up in the second, his rhythm only interrupted by a political protest. For once Andy seized a chance after the delay.


Murray surged back to punish the Djokovic serve just as it deserved to be. Soon he led 5-4, finding a truly aggressive streak at last. He even had a set point on the next Djokovic serve, yet once again the composure didn’t match the talent.


So we were soon into the second tie-break of the match. Murray led 4-1 and 6-2. He had a simple volley to close out the set and he blew it. Surely he wasn’t going to make a mess of this one too? Mercifully, he had enough set points to level the match 7-4 in the breaker.


Andy broke Djokovic in the very first game of the third and once again the favourite’s ankle seemed to be troubling him. It didn’t last. Novak broke back to level at 2-2 after Murray netted unnecessarily. Andy had another break point at 3-3 but yet again the chance went begging.

And Murray was yelling at his box in frustration after dropping his serve to allow Novak a 5-3 lead in the third. Djokovic made no mistake and led 2-1 in sets, with Andy in meltdown. Once he had broken Murray in the very first game of the fourth, the writing was on the wall. Murray capitulated completely. It was sad to see because he could have won.

In he end, Novak’s talent was matched by his mental strength. That was the key.

Djokovic said: ‘Andy I wish you a happy marriage to Kim and many wonderful kids! Thanks to my team and the fans, see you next year!’

Murray said later: ‘Congratulations on your fifth Australian Open Novak, a fantastic record, well done. It has been my most consistent Slam throughout my career but I just haven’t been able to win it. I’ll come back next year and try to make it a different outcome in the final.’

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