Friday, 1 February 2013

Portentous Feathers

Can the outcome of a tennis match ever be determined by the fluttering of a feather, such as the one that spiralled down from the heavens as Andy Murray stepped up to the baseline for a second serve during the tie-break of an exceptionally tight second set of the Australian Open final?  If so, then the bird that molted that pristine white feather cost Andy Murray a place in history as the only man in the open era to follow up his maiden slam championship with success at the next major event in the calendar.

However, how far that inauspicious talisman affected the match will remain debatable, for despite Murray being the stronger and the better player in the opening set, it was Novak Djokovic who inevitably maintained concentration over the course of the match to roll out a 67 76 63 62 winner.

The scoreline tells the story of the match completely, for as Murray faltered with the increasing minutes, Djokovic kept on improving.  Easily the more convincing in the early exchanges, the 24-hour less recovery time afforded Andy Murray by the semi-final scheduling failed to rear its ugly head during the first set as he kept pace with Djokovic, frequently coming out on top of the long baseline exchanges.  As the tie-break approached, Murray looked the more likely to take the set, and he notched up the early mini-breaks to open the scoring in just over an hour.  It had been a solid and convincing display from the Scot, who in his previous two Australian Open finals had withered in the face of superior opposition.  However, his performance was marred by his inability to make any inroads into the Djokovic service game.  On the ground, Murray returned better and hit better to gain the upper-hand in the rallies, but ultimately Djokovic kept pace with the challenge long enough to prevent Murray from running away with the set.

The second set began in much the same way as the first, and Murray looked to take the early advantage as he rolled out to 0-40 during Djokovic's opening service game.  The Serb, however, was to pull through this minor crisis.  It was to prove a crunch moment which inevitably became a turning point in the match, for while the rallies continued to be long, the outcome looked less certain than in the first set.  Indeed, Murray's confidence appeared to be drifting exponentially to Djokovic's increasing intensity, and some ugly blisters revealed during a timeout at the change of ends suggested that Murray's confidence was becoming as battered as his feet.  Indeed, although the #3 seed held out until the tie-break, the momentum was firmly with the defending champion.  The opening 4 points of the breaker went with serve, but it was at 2-all that Murray missed a first serve before a flit of white caught his eye and he removed a feather from the court.  The break between first and second serves inevitably played with his focus and he promptly double faulted.  Djokovic, now a mini-break ahead, played out the rest of the breaker to level the match.

From there, it seemed that Murray was increasingly deflated, the match sprinting towards an inevitable conclusion.  Djokovic carved out an opportunity at 43 up in the third, pinning Murray back to 0-40.  2 solid points for the Scot redressed a little of the balance, but a sloppy forehand from the weary-looking player slapped into the net to hand Djokovic the ascendancy.  The top seed needed little encouragement, bagging 8 of the next 9 games to take the set and the upper hand going into the final stages of the match.  Murray was to come up with little resistance, struggling with his serve as the error and double fault count increased and Djokovic eventually called time on proceedings after 3 hours and 40 minutes to claim his third consecutive Australian Open title, his fourth in total.

The primary difference in the match was not Murray's increasing tiredness and frustration, nor the loose feather of a passing bird, but the impenetrability of the Djokovic serve.  Over the course of the tournament, Djokovic was only consistently undone on serve by one player - Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round.  Wawrinka eked out 18 breakpoints over the course of their epic five-setter, and converted 7 of them.  That Djokovic converted 7 of his 14 chances during the same match was as heartbreaking for the Swiss #2 as the exhaustion implicit in the 12-10 final set scoreline.

Throughout the tournament Djokovic was near perfect while serving.  A masterclass in the second round saw Ryan Harrison fail to even record a single break point against the Serbian man.  And the feat was repeated, more emphatically, in the semi-final as Djokovic bulldozed Spain's David Ferrer (the #4 seed) in a straightforward 3-set victory that had many people feeling the chasm of Rafael Nadal's absence from the competition.  Tomas Berdych fared better a round earlier, taking the second set to 4, but failed to sustain enough momentum to see the match to a favourable conclusion, allowing Djokovic to steal another victory.

In the final, Andy Murray joined Djokovic's first and third round opponents (Paul-Henri Mathieu and Radek Stepanek) in failing to take the scant opportunities that the top seed threw their way over the course of their matches.  Evidence of tennis as a sport of ifs, could-ofs and maybes, Murray's conversion of just one of those three break points at the beginning of the second set could have led to an entirely different conclusion of the match.

As it is, in a match billed as a barometric indicator of the rankings in the ATP, Novak Djokovic proved, conclusively that he is the #1 ATP player in the world at the moment and the undefeated Australian Open champion for a third successive season.

No comments:


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...