Djokovic gets by Murray; Nadal awaits
Winning becomes a habit.
It’s one Novak Djokovic has picked up, and this psychological advantage enabled him to stave off a remarkable comeback attempt by Andy Murray to reach the final of the ATP Masters Series in Rome, with a 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 victory after the Scot had served for the match.
“It was a match I should have won,” said a disappointed Murray afterward. “It was a match of very high quality, and I am usually pretty good at finishing off top players from winning positions.”
Against someone less inspired, less determined and less in the winning groove than this remarkable Serb, Murray might have done so. Instead, he was left with the consolation of knowing he had achieved something worthwhile merely by turning around a contest that was embarrassingly one-sided for the first half-hour.
And it was not because Murray had been playing badly. Djokovic just began like a man possessed, driving forehands and backhands ever deeper, ever harder, pushing Murray back and winning rallies that would have left many athletes gasping for breath. The Serb media are calling Djokovic “Mr. Invincible,” and that seemed very apt during those opening exchanges.
Murray kept telling himself that he was hitting the ball well — which he was — and that sooner or later Djokovic would give him a break. Finally, he did, hitting a couple of forehands in the net and giving the British No. 1 the chance to show that he, too, could come up with amazing winners from the far reaches of the court.
But he left it a little late. Murray was trailing 3-1 in the second before he put together a string of shots that even Djokovic couldn’t handle, and suddenly he was leading 4-3, having broken twice in succession. The crowd was stunned, but most were all too happy to delay their dinner because they were feasting at a tennis banquet of the most succulent kind.
If there had been signs of weariness in Djokovic’s play at the end of the second, they had disappeared by the time the third set unfolded much like the other two, with both players engaging in extraordinary rallies that frequently lasted more than 20 strokes.
Djokovic did falter in the eighth game, and Murray pounced. But, serving for the match — a position that had seemed impossible two hours before — he suddenly looked vulnerable for the first time since the opening stages of a duel that lasted just more than three hours. He double-faulted, shrugged it off, reached deuce and then, after a break point against him, got to within two points of victory a second time.
But a forehand that missed by an inch and another double-fault sealed Murray’s fate. The chance was gone, and Djokovic dominated the tie break, winning it 7-2.
“Andy should take heart from that performance,” said Sven Groeneveld, one of the adidas coaches who have been helping Murray this week. “He will learn a lot from it.”
But as Groeneveld pointed out, the real winner was the man back at his hotel — Rafael Nadal.
“When is the final — four o’clock?” asked Groeneveld, looking at his watch, which said 11:30 p.m. “No way Novak will recover in time. He will be feeling it in the legs.”
Looking at the Serb’s red eyes and drawn features when he eventually made it into press conference at 12:40 a.m., one was inclined to agree.
“Fitness will be a factor in the final now, for sure,” said Djokovic. “Obviously winning all the time catches up with you physically, especially after matches like this. But we shall just have to see. This was a fantastic match to be part of, and Andy played really well — he served very well in the second set and put a lot of pressure on my service games. Unfortunately one of us had to lose.”