Can a match be decided by a feather?
Silly as it seems, a feather that floated past Andy Murray in the second set tiebreaker and contributed to a double fault might have helped change the course of an Australian Open final that, in the end, was dominated by Novak Djokovic, who wrapped up his third straight title at Melbourne Park with a 6-7 (2), 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-2 victory.
Murray had run away with the first-set tiebreaker 7-2, and Djokovic had needed to fight his way out of 0-40 on his serve in the second game of the second set. The Serb, subdued in the beginning, had been making an unusual number of unforced errors — especially with backhands dumped into the net — and Murray was the favorite to establish a two-sets-to-love lead when the second tiebreaker began.
The score was 2-2 when Murray, having missed his first serve, noticed a bird’s feather floating into his line of vision.
“It just caught my eye before I served,” he said. “I thought it was a good idea to move it. Maybe it wasn’t, because I double faulted.”
Djokovic quickly went 5-2 up. He survived a strength-sapping rally when Murray eventually netted a backhand and, at 6-3, needed only one of three set points to level the match. The contest was never the same again.
This duel between two players who promise to dominate the men’s game in the immediate future was never as good or as enthralling as their five-set struggle last year in the US Open final, but it was kept alive by Murray’s refusal to give up, even as his movement became increasingly hampered by a huge blister on his toe — a legacy of his four-hour, five-set battle against Roger Federer just 48 hours earlier.
In the third and fourth sets, many of the ex-players following the match, such as Jim Courier and John Fitzgerald, were agreed Murray could no longer push off or change direction as Djokovic increasingly used the legitimate tactic of hitting balls behind him.
Murray refused to turn it into an excuse.
“Ninety percent of the players on the tour will have played this tournament with some sort of blister or problem," he said. "It had no bearing on the result. It just hurts a little bit when you run. It’s part and parcel of playing these big events against the best players in the world.”
At the US Open, the scheduling and the wind, which seemed to affect Djokovic’s game far more than Murray’s, ensured he had the lion’s share of the luck. Here, it was the reverse.
For a start, it was he who drew Federer as a semifinal opponent while Djokovic played Rafael Nadal’s replacement as No. 4 seed, David Ferrer (winning in straight sets), and it was Djokovic who had the extra day to prepare between the semifinal and final.
It happens. No one has ever won a Grand Slam event without a little luck, and it in no way diminishes the Serb’s achievement.
His superb flexibility and athleticism, which enable him to reach and return shots that few could even contemplate, have taken him, quite deservedly to the top of the game. To beat Djokovic, you need to play out of your mind and be close to 100 percent physically. Murray played well enough but his body let him down.
Djokovic was obviously thrilled at his victory.
“I’m full of joy right now,” he said. “It’s going to give me a lot of confidence for the rest of the season, that’s for sure.”
Djokovic admitted that getting out of that game from 0-40 was probably a turning point in a match that lasted 3 hours, 40 minutes.
“I think the first two sets went 2 hours, 20 minutes,” he said. “I think that says enough about the intensity. I kind of expected that. After saving those break points, I just felt mentally a little bit lighter and more confident on the court than I had done in the first hour or so. I tried to be more aggressive. I needed to be the one who dictated the play, and I’m really glad that I’ve played my best.”
If criticism could be leveled at Murray on a tactical level, it was the way he refused to get in after opening up the court. Djokovic made 41 sorties to the net and won 85 percent of them. Murray got in only 15 times and was successful only 60 percent of the time. It is something he will be discussing, no doubt, when he is reunited with coach Ivan Lendl in Florida in a couple of weeks.
For Djokovic, there is no rest. He was catching a late flight out of Melbourne so as to prepare for a Davis Cup tie against host Belgium in Charleroi on Friday. As Serbia’s No 2 player, Janko Tipsarevic, is unlikely to play, Djokovic’s team will need him.