And so the 2017 tennis season is now in motion—not a moment too soon for me— and it could hardly have started with more of a flourish. In the final of the Qatar ExxonMobil Open in Doha, defending champion Novak Djokovic collided with Andy Murray, the man who improbably took away his No. 1 world ranking at the end of last year.
The two greatest players in the game fittingly commenced the new year with a riveting and significant hard court meeting that could have added value with the upcoming Australian Open right around the corner. Murray had upended Djokovic in the final of the Barclays ATP World Tour Championships at London back in November when the highly coveted No. 1 spot in the Emirates ATP Rankings was on the line for both competitors. Never before had the two top players competed in a monumental match at the end of a year in a title round contest with such a prestigious prize at stake.
Murray thus headed into 2017 on a remarkable roll. Not only had he surpassed Djokovic at the very top of the tennis mountain, but he was celebrating the biggest winning streak of his career. By the time he took the court to confront Djokovic in Qatar, the British warrior had won no less than 28 matches in a row. He was in full pursuit of a sixth consecutive ATP World Tour title. For the first time in a long while, he was the favorite in this matchup of the titans. And yet, Murray would not necessarily have benefitted from carrying his big winning streak into the Australian Open. He was due for another loss, and better to have it happen in Doha rather than Melbourne.
The view here is that Djokovic had more to play for on this occasion, and perhaps that was one of the chief reasons he came through in what became a spellbinding encounter. After capturing six singles titles across the first half of 2016, he won only one more crown the rest of the way. He lost a large chunk of his confidence, suffered some injuries and fell somewhat into disarray.
His agonizing slump nearly continued this past week. In the penultimate round at Doha, the Serbian was down match point five times before escaping against the flamboyant, mercurial, left-handed Fernando Verdasco of Spain. Surviving that gut-wrenching skirmish enabled Djokovic to set up his appointment with Murray. From the outset, it was apparent
that Djokovic had rediscovered much of the inner fire, rhythmic beauty from the backcourt and emotional stability that had been missing at the tail end of 2016. He was striking the ball cleanly, precisely and often majestically. He was bearing down hard and relentlessly. He looked a whole lot more like the Djokovic who dominated the game from the beginning of 2015 through the middle of the following season.
But as the first set unfolded in Doha, Murray, too, was resolute, purposeful and sound. Understandably, both men had some difficulties in their opening service games, although they managed to move past those moments ably. In the opening game, Djokovic held on his third game point after two deuces despite connecting with eight of ten first serves. Murray was down 15-30 in the second game but he swept three straight points for 1-1, closing that game out with a deft topspin lob that was too much for Djokovic to handle. The rallies were long and hard fought. Both men were gradually finding their range. The battle was on.
Djokovic had to battle fiercely again through two deuces, saving a break point with a service winner down the T on his way to 2-1. Murray then reached 2-2 at the cost of only one point, closing out that fourth game with an ace out wide in the deuce court. Now both players had their bearings. Djokovic held at love for 3-2, releasing a winner off each side in that game. Murray was pushed to deuce in the sixth game but he held on with tenacity for 3-3. After a markedly improving Djokovic served another love game for 4-3, Murray seemed ready to respond in kind. He was up 40-15 in the pivotal eighth game.
And yet, what seemed like a routine hold drifted completely away from Murray. He wasted a fine wide serve in the deuce court, carelessly sending a two-hander into the net: 40-30. Another errant backhand made it deuce. A deep shot from the Serbian coaxed an error from Murray off the forehand. Now Djokovic had garnered a break point, and he did not squander it. A biting backhand slice stayed low, drawing a wild forehand miss-hit error from Murray. Djokovic was buoyant after gaining the break for 5-3. He raced to 40-0 in the ninth game and held at love with a dazzling down the line forehand winner. The set belonged to Djokovic, 6-3.
Murray, however, was not fretting about the one bad game he played on his serve that cost him the opening set. He held at 15 with an ace for 1-0 in the second set. Djokovic retaliated by holding at 30, putting away an
overhead to reach 1-1. The Djokovic overhead was much bolder and better than usual on this occasion, Too often he has displayed timidity on the smash over the years, but he knows full well that no one in professional tennis lobs better than Murray. The British player's high trajectory lobs are almost always very deep and awfully difficult to deal with. Although Djokovic was guilty of a few errant overheads in this confrontation, his success rate was high. The fundamental truth is that he recognized that he could not allow the determined Murray back into points by demonstrating caution on his smashes.
Murray held at love for 2-1 and Djokovic replicated that feat, sweeping four points in a row, traveling to 2-2 with a pair of forehand winners, one on the volley and the other off the ground. After Murray moved to 3-2 with a strong hold at 15, Djokovic found himself break point down in the sixth game. But he saved it with a solidly and accurately struck backhand crosscourt that provoked an error from Murray. After four deuces and some serious resistance from his adversary, Djokovic made it to 3-3. That tough stand served Djokovic well. He sensed correctly that Murray was disconcerted by not getting the break he wanted. The world No. 1 served two double faults in the following game, releasing the second at 30-40.
Djokovic was deservedly in command, up a break and leading 4-3. He trailed 0-30 in the eighth game but collected four points in a row for 5-3, coaxing another error from Murray with a backhand slice. The 29-year-old Serbian was only one game away from a decisive triumph. Murray granted his rival just one point in the ninth game, but Djokovic still seemed primed to close out the account on his own terms.
Serving for the match at 5-4. Djokovic's footwork was outstanding on the first point. He retreated to get behind another high lob from Murray, took the requisite number of small steps, and sent a gorgeous down the line overhead taken on the bounce for a clean winner. A pinpoint first serve down the T set up the No. 2 seed for a forehand winner. He was ahead 30-0. But then he produced his first double fault of the match, serving it feebly into the net. Murray aggressively took the next two points for 30-40, but Djokovic erased that break point against him with an immaculately struck inside out forehand winner. He won the next exchange to earn his first match point, but drove a trademark two-hander down the line with no conviction, sending that shot wide into the alley. He then reached match point for the second time, but became too passive. Murray attacked behinda forehand down the line approach. An outstretched Djokovic had no chance.
Soon Djokovic created a third match point opportunity, but this one he threw away with a backhand slice that floated long. The tension in Djokovic was almost palpable. Murray advanced to break point again, and converted it unswervingly with an outstanding inside out forehand winner clipping the sideline. At 30-30 in the eleventh game, Djokovic had a wide avenue open for a backhand down the line passing shot, but drove that shot long. Infuriated with himself, frustrated by that mistake, Djokovic smashed his racket on the court. Having already received a warning earlier, he was assessed a point penalty now, allowing Murray to reach 6-5. The British competitor proceeded to play his most inspired game of the entire match.
A winning backhand drop shot took him to 15-15, and then Murray reached 15-30 with a brilliant backhand passing shot. Djokovic came forward on the following point but the journey to the net did not work out well. He tamely punched a backhand volley crosscourt, allowing Murray all the room in the world to pass his adversary down the line off the backhand. Murray did so beautifully. Djokovic saved one break point with a surprise serve-and-volley combination, but, at 30-40, he could not thwart Murray. The top seed stepped in and crushed a flat backhand crosscourt return off a second serve. Djokovic was rushed into an error. Set to a revitalized Murray, 7-5.
Djokovic had to be internally reeling. He had lost four games in a row from the edge of victory. His opponent was surging and self assured. The Serbian had to be wondering why he was still on the court. But here Djokovic reaffirmed to his legion of worldwide admirers why he has established himself as one of the golden players of the modern era. After Murray held in a deuce game for 1-0 in the final set, Djokovic recovered his self belief, holding at love in the second game. Both players held at 15 to make it 2-2. Murray followed with a love hold for 3-2, acing Djokovic out wide in the ad court to finish that game.
Djokovic was under duress as he served in the sixth game. He was down break point. But his excellently placed first serve elicited a short return from Murray. Djokovic approached unhesitatingly off the forehand. Murray's lob was surprisingly short, and Djokovic comfortably put away an overhead. Djokovic released an un-returnable wide serve to the forehand for game point and then ran Murray ragged on the next point. The world's top ranked
player netted a forehand on the run. It was 3-3. In the seventh game, Murray missed three out of four first serves and Djokovic pounced, breaking at love for 4-3. In holding at 15 for 5-3, Djokovic served with uncanny precision. Murray held at 15 in the ninth game, and so for the second time Djokovic served for the match. He bungled an overhead off a deep lob and netted a backhand down the line that was never in the cards.
Down 0-30, Djokovic took the next point on a netted forehand from Murray, who had defended skillfully until that unjustifiable miss. A glaring backhand unforced error from Murray made it 30-30. Djokovic used his depth to win the next point, forcing an errant backhand from Murray. For the fourth time, Djokovic was at match point, and this time he refused to be denied the prize he had been pursuing for nearly three hours. He played this point impeccably. Controlling the rally from start to finish, Djokovic won a 21 shot exchange by rolling a forehand winner out of Murray's reach off a tricky short ball. This skirmish was up there among the best these two competitors have ever played against each other in a best of three set format. The victor succeeded by scores of 6-3, 5-7, 6-4. This prodigious champion collected the 67th singles title of his sterling career. He has lost only 29 finals.
Djokovic put 72% of his first serves in play, winning 68% of those points. Murray's first serve percentage was 12% lower than his opponent's but his success rate was 10% higher. But, more importantly, Djokovic won 61% of his second serve points and that was 14% better than Murray in the same category. Djokovic owns a 25-11 career winning record over Murray and he raised his record over his longtime rival to 20-0 after winning the first set. Conversely, Murray has lost five times to Djokovic after taking the opening set.
Djokovic took full advantage of his stirring comeback against the ever dangerous Verdasco in a bizarre semifinal showdown. After leading 4-2 in the opening set, Djokovic lost six games in a row. He climbed back into the second set but descended to 2-6 in the tie-break. Yet he refused to surrender, approaching the net to force an errant backhand pass to save the first match point. Verdasco imploded on the second, shanking a forehand well out of court. Djokovic prevailed in a 31 stroke rally to wipe away a third match point. Now serving at 5-6, he denied Verdasco again, serving strategically to set up a backhand crosscourt winner. The 33-year-old Spaniard moved ahead 7-6, advancing to match point for the fifth time.
He sent his southpaw serve wide to the backhand in the ad court but Djokovic cut off the angle and got his return back just deep enough with enough mustard on it to make Verdasco miss an inside out forehand.
Djokovic had danced calmly out of danger. He won the next two points to take the tie-break 9-7 and never looked back, winning 4-6, 7-6 (7), 6-3. That set the stage for his heroics against Murray. Doha is only a 250 level event on the ATP World Tour. Djokovic's priorities are unequivocally the four majors and the Masters 1000 events. But the fact remains that he needed a tournament victory of any kind and a big win over his foremost rival very badly at this particular time. Had Djokovic lost to Murray after having three match points on his own serve in the second set, he would have gone into the Australian Open as a deeply deflated figure. But now he surely will have his swagger back in Melbourne, and that is not good news for Andy Murray or anyone else in the field.