Andy Murray looks like a one-hit wonder.
In the Australian Open final, Murray had Novak Djokovic almost dangling on the end of a hook, facing three break points in what proved to be a momentum-shifting game early in the second set.
But he couldn’t reel in the Serb, who now has six major titles and the top of men’s tennis to himself with age slowly blunting Roger Federer’s abilities and Rafael Nadal’s future clouded by creaky knees.
This was Murray’s chance to capitalize on his breakthrough year in 2012, when he won his first major title and Olympic gold.
Had Murray won again Sunday, Britons could have joked that major titles for British men are like London buses: you wait ages for one and then two come along in quick succession.
Murray ruined the punch line.
His 7-6 (2),6-7 (3), 3-6, 2-6 loss in Melbourne to Djokovic was gritty but felt like a step back, not a step forward. At this stage of his career, Murray needs to be regularly winning major finals, not just reaching them, if he wants to be remembered for more than just one exceptional year in 2012.
That Murray allowed a feather falling onto the court to throw off his serve in the second set tiebreaker and squandered match-changing break points made one wonder whether his curse is that he has the physical tools to be a great tennis player but not the mind.
Backing up that argument is Murray’s now near-dismal record in major finals: played six, won just one – against Djokovic at the U.S. Open last September.
That was the first major for a British man since Fred Perry in 1936. It was historic but not, in itself, an answer to the question of whether Murray is simply a very good player or has the makings of a great one.
A victory for Murray on Sunday to go with his U.S. Open crown and his Olympic gold won at home last August would have looked like a power shift at the top of men’s tennis, especially since Murray beat Federer for the first time in four attempts at a major to reach Sunday’s final.
Instead, the loss to Djokovic made Murray’s 2012 wins look more like exceptions than the possible beginnings of a new rule.
Still, the successes of 2012 and a whole year of coaching and confidence boosting from Ivan Lendl have clearly made a startling difference.
Unlike the pre-Lendl Murray, the new Murray doesn’t so often look as if he swallowed a cocktail of vinegar and lemon juice. He still grimaces and mutters to himself and yells at his entourage when shots go awry. But he has ditched the loser’s body language and hang-dog look that too often used make his defeats seem like self-fulfilling prophecies.
Still, Murray’s positive outlook and the more aggressive, take-it-to-the-opponent shot-making that flows from it weren’t enough to beat Djokovic this time. The Serb’s wells of confidence and resolve seem deeper than anyone’s in tennis with the possible exception of Nadal.
The Australian final showed that physically, Djokovic and Murray are evenly matched, powerful on both the backhand and forehand sides, with delicate control, supreme fitness and rubber-ball quickness around the court.
But until Murray can consistently go toe-to-toe with Djokovic’s mental toughness, their rivalry won’t feel as titanic as clashes between Djokovic and Nadal or Federer and Nadal when they are at their best.
Djokovic is exuberant, a joker apt to wear a blonde wig or Darth Vader mask onto court. Murray is so understated he said the most enjoyable part of winning the U.S. Open was getting back to his hotel room and “spending a bit of time on my own.”
But those differences are cosmetic. The difference that counted most on Sunday was killer instinct.
Djokovic had it.
Murray did not.
Murray should have landed a crippling blow when he had Djokovic on the ropes at the end of the first set and beginning of the second.
In his most convincing period of the match, Murray won 17 of 19 points, racing to a 4-0 lead in winning the first-set tiebreaker, holding his serve to love at the start of the second set and then putting the squeeze on Djokovic to 0-40 on his serve.
That Murray didn’t convert those break points into a 2-0, second-set lead was telling, especially given the fact that Djokovic had looked so out of sorts, annoyed with his shoes, shots and movement.
Winning that game, alone, wouldn’t have won Murray the match. But it certainly would have given him hard-to-stop momentum that might have taken his mind off the painful blister developing on his right foot.
“At this level, it can come down to just a few points here or there. My probably biggest chance was at the beginning of the second set; (I) didn’t quite get it. When Novak had his chance at the end of the third, he got his,” Murray said.
Another turning point was Murray’s loss of concentration at 2-2 in the second tiebreaker. Interrupting his service action because a white feather was floating onto the court, then catching it and getting rid of it only to serve a double-fault suggested that Murray still lets too many outside influences interfere with his focus.
“It just caught my eye before I served. I thought it was a good idea to move it,” Murray said. “Maybe it wasn’t because I obviously double-faulted.”
So Murray remains a work in progress, not the finished product. Lendl still has work to do.
Lendl understands Murray because, like the Scot, he lost his first four major finals before winning his fifth – the 1984 French Open. Lendl’s jagged career path of sustained disappointment followed by eventual long-term success should again offer hope to Murray. After his 1984 breakthrough, Lendl lost his sixth major final, as Murray has now done, and his seventh, too. But the career record Lendl retired with – eight titles from 19 major finals – is one Murray would doubtless give his hind teeth for. A moral of Lendl’s story is try and then try again, making him the perfect coach to extricate Murray from the trough of this latest defeat.
Together, Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray form a Fab Four who have separated themselves from the rest of the men’s field with the sustained excellence of their play.
But Murray remains the group’s Ringo Starr – still bringing up the rear. He needs more hits of his own for that to change.