Tennis

Djokovic-Murray battle set tone for 2011

Gods Of War
Novak Djokovic prevailed in three sets over Andy Murray.
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Richard Evans

Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." Follow him on Twitter.

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The year of 2011 offered up some brilliant and often astounding tennis, with the women producing the surprises and the men an ever-escalating level of eye-popping excellence.

You could trawl through any number of matches and come up with duels that could be described as historic, with the semifinals of the US Open that saw Novak Djokovic, the player of the year, escape from match point down against Roger Federer in one semifinal and Rafael Nadal having to pull out all the stops to beat Andy Murray in the other as prime examples of just how dramatic and thrilling the men’s game has become.

Andy Murray

Andy Murray let the match slip away.

Clive Brunskill

But as the top four continued their stranglehold on the sharp end of Grand Slam tournaments, which rightly hogged the limelight and lit up television viewing figures, it was a semifinal match of the ATP Masters Series in Rome which gets my vote as the match of the year, as much for the knock-on psychological effects as for the astounding quality of play.

To recap, Djokovic defeated Andy Murray 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 in three hours of tennis that would have lit up the Foro Italico even if the floodlights hadn’t been as bright. As much as anything it was the quality of tennis produced by both players that lingers in the memory – an opening set from Djokovic that was so ruthless and so devastating in its technical brilliance that Murray, who was hitting the ball well, had no play.

But to his enormous credit, the Scot refused to succumb to the onslaught. Incredibly, he stormed out of his corner with right and left hooks that would have done credit to the boxing champions he admires so much. From 1-3 down in the second, Murray staged a counter attack of stunning proportions, somehow managing to force the Serb onto the back foot with the depth, power and accuracy of his ground strokes.

With the Roman crowd roaring their approval as they lapped up this gladiatorial contest, the third set was dead even until Murray latched onto a couple of short balls and broke to leave himself serving for the match. Twice he came within two points of victory – a victory that would have etched itself into the legend of great comebacks considering how Djokovic had dominated the early stages.

But Murray double-faulted; missed a forehand that would have given him match point by no more than an inch and then double faulted again. “I don’t know what happened,” he admitted afterward. “I am normally very good at closing out matches when I get a lead.”

Why? The psychologists will have to answer that one. Because it was Djokovic on the other side of the net? Because it was clay? Because he was just a touch tired after three hours of the most extreme physical and mental effort?

Whatever the reason, the result, which came when a relieved Djokovic swept through the tie break, had a major impact on the remainder of the season. Just think of the possible consequences of a Murray victory.

1. Djokovic would not have had the chance of inflicting another mentally debilitating clay-court defeat on Nadal – a defeat that scarred the Spaniard for the rest of the year because of its decisive nature on a surface Rafa looked upon as his own.

2. Nadal would have been favorite to retain his Italian crown without Djokovic breathing down his neck.

3. Psychologically, Nadal would have been in much better shape when they met in the Wimbledon final. Nadal’s triumph at Roland Garros, after Federer had taken care of Djokovic in the semifinal, had not eradicated the memory of those four consecutive ATP Masters defeats at the hands of the Serb – and especially not that one in Rome. And the memory lingered all the way through to the final of the US Open, where Novak made it six out of six big finals in which he had outplayed the man he had replaced as world No 1.

4. For Murray, winning that semifinal would have lifted him into another sphere. A finalist on clay in Rome? That was somewhere Murray had never been – a level above his immediate expectations. And to have reached it by overcoming such a rampantly confident opponent in a match of such excellence would have done wonders for his own state of mind. As it was, Murray went on to reach the semifinal of the year’s three remaining Grand Slams, but had he beaten Djokovic that night in Rome ... who knows?

We talk about this being more and more of a physical game, which it is. But the mental side of the sport is just as dominant – a fact that was made so clear on so many occasions during a fascinating year on the world wide tour.

So who is up for 2012 – both physically and mentally? Who has survived the last 12 months with the least scars on their body and mind? Next month, in Melbourne where everyone gathers for the Australian Open and the big start to a brand new year, we will begin to find out.
 

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