In what has become an annual tradition, Novak Djokovic went through Andy Murray to claim the Australian Open championship.
For the fifth time in six years–and the fourth time in a final–it was Djokovic proving superior to his peer, this time arguably the most convincing. In a scratchy 6-1, 7-5, 7-6 (3) affair, Djokovic showed yet again that his average level of tennis is enough to comfortably overcome most players on tour. The glowing words about another Slam title for Djokovic, this his 11th, tying legends-among-legends Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg, have already come flowing in, though his semifinal performance against Roger Federer was the true crown jewel of his tournament. Djokovic was an overwhelming favorite to win down under, and that he did.
The key moments for Djokovic came after Murray failed to seize his chances in the second set. Deep in the set when Murray could have already had it in the bag at that point, Djokovic found a higher gear for a brief stretch and it was enough to steal the break (Murray led 40-0 in that service game). Djokovic kicked in back-to-back double faults to nearly send the set to a tiebreaker, but the chair umpire failed to overrule a called-good first serve on break point, and when Murray too failed to challenge, Djokovic capitalized and consolidated the break to effectively end the match.
Djokovic is getting most of the press for his victory, and deservedly so, but the larger implications reside on Murray’s side on the net. This result can get thrown out, considering Murray’s wife, Kim, is close to giving birth to the couple’s first child and that his father-in-law had a health scare mid-tournament while coaching Ana Ivanovic. He seemed resigned that this was not the chance he’d been seeking to strike back against Djokovic.
In isolation, this match was not an indictment on Murray, except it begs this question: Shouldn’t those circumstances have inspired Murray to try a radically different gameplan? Murray was content to trade groundstrokes with the best baseliner in the world as he has been for the past few years. Eleven out of 12 losses to one opponent would seem to suggest the necessity of a new strategy, except Murray wins just enough rallies with conservative and patient shots that it goads him into believing that’s it a coherent strategy, when over a large sample it’s actually quite clearly a losing proposition.
If this was a match in which Murray needed a miracle to win, then he, unlike most athletes who say as much, truly had nothing to lose. Try moonballs, try drop shots with the express purpose of following them with lobs (for all his dominance, Djokovic still #Djokosmashes on a regular basis), try something. Gilles Simon pushed Djokovic by doing something different: he took all pace off the ball and hit down the middle, eliminating angles and forcing Djokovic to create his own pace.
Speaking as someone who is quite clearly not a Roger Federer fan, this match reinforced why Federer is be marveled over: At 34, and–for all the talk of Djokovic’s chances at 20 Slams and beyond–still the favorite to end this generation as the Greatest of All-Time, the man is still tinkering with ways to get back to the top of the summit. His SABR grew tiresome because of the media’s obsession with it, but it was inventive and exploratory. It wasn’t perfectly implemented, but the purpose was clear and it proved to be useful in small doses.
Again, this isn’t meant to be a criticism of Murray due to the outside influences that weighed on his mind. It’s simply a theory on wondering if this matchup that was once a rivalry (the head-to-head was once 8-7 in favor of Djokovic, back when Murray outlasted him to claim the 2012 U.S. Open) is now etched in stone. Djokovic took his game to the next level with extremely hard work and with coach Boris Becker helping to beef up his serve and make him more confident in major finals.
As he now sets his sights on Roland Garros, completing the career Grand Slam and holding all four majors at once, it’s time to see if the rest of the tour is capable of mustering any resistance. It was a pipe dream to think other players could catch up to him in the brief offseason. With both hardcourt and clay swings coming up, as well as four months until the latter stages of the French Open, the chase starts now for the field.