To most observers who might qualify as charter members of the tennis cognoscenti, many signs pointed to Novak Djokovic toppling his chief rival Andy Murray in the title round contest at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London's 02 Arena.
Djokovic has virtually owned the elite season-ending tournament, claiming the title for the first time in 2008 when it was played in Shanghai, coming through to collect the crown every year from 2012-2015 in London. Moreover, the Serbian came into his appointment with Murray rested and confident after a 6-1, 6-1 semifinal triumph over Kei Nishikori, while the British gladiator had waged war for no less than three hours and 38 minutes in his semifinal before overcoming a gallant Milos Raonic 5-7, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (9) from match point down in the final set tie-break.
Let's consider one other fundamental fact: Djokovic had beaten Murray in 24 of 34 career head to head contests, including victories at the Australian and French Open finals earlier in the 2016 season. Now, in their first meeting since Roland Garros, everything was on the line. The victor in the Djokovic-Murray confrontation would conclude the year as the No. 1 ranked player in the Emirates ATP [World] Rankings, a distinction that is highly coveted by all of the leading players because it demonstrates superiority from the beginning of a campaign until the very end. Since the ATP Rankings were introduced in 1973, having it all come down to one match for the No. 1 annual ranking was unprecedented. It must be said that the World Tour Championships—formerly known as The Masters from its inception in 1970— did not count on the computer until 1990, but since that time two players had never clashed in the final knowing that the winner would garner the No. 1 ranking for the year. And it was Murray who dealt much better with the demanding circumstances. His focus was sharper and his mindset was stronger. Murray defeated an off key and ill at ease Djokovic 6-3, 6-4.
Murray knew this was uncharted territory for him; he had only finished one year (2015) at No. 2 but had never been even close to securing the top spot. He had climbed to No. 1 just a few weeks ago after winning the Masters 1000 tournament in Paris, but that accomplishment pales in comparison to wearing the No. 1 robe at the end of the year. Murray had worked exceedingly hard to put himself in this enviable position. After losing the final to Djokovic at Roland Garros, he reunited with former coach Ivan Lendl and proceeded to capture three tournaments in a row including Wimbledon and the Olympic Games. He had swept 22 consecutive matches before losing to Marin Cilic in the final of Cincinnati.
The British competitor then lost a five setter to Kei Nishikori in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, and was beaten again in another five setter right after in Davis Cup at the hands of the towering Juan Martin Del Potro. But then he went on another stirring tear, winning, Beijing, Shanghai, Vienna, and Paris. That meant that he approached his duel with Djokovic having been victorious in seven of his previous nine tournaments, taking his last four consecutively. Djokovic, meanwhile, had slumped decidedly, winning only one tournament after Roland Garros, seldom looking like himself, wandering frequently into the land of self doubts.
And yet, Djokovic had found his form in London. After dropping a first set tie-break in his first round robin assignment against Dominic Thiem, he dropped only two more games to win 6-7 (9), 6-0, 6-2. He was pressed hard by Raonic but was a clutch performer when it counted the most, winning 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), despite twice squandering service break leads in the second set. He next accounted for David Goffin—a last minute replacement for an ailing Gael Monfils—6-1, 6-2 and his timing was impressive in that contest. Finally, he obliterated Nishikori, allowing the Japanese icon to hold serve only once in two sets, elevating his game to its highest level in months.
Murray, of course, had worked overtime all week. He crushed Marin Cilic but then needed three hours and twenty minutes to subdue Nishikori 6-7 (9), 6-4, 6-4. Nishikori had escaped a tortuous tie-break after leading 6-3, winning it eleven points to nine on his fifth set point after saving a pair of set points. Down 4-2 in the second set, he rallied to 4-4 and had two game points for 5-4. But Murray stymied him there and never looked back, despite losing three games in a row from 5-1 in the third.
In his last round robin match, Murray took apart a frequently misfiring Stan Wawrinka 6-4, 6-2, and then met Raonic for the sixth time in 2016. Murray had won all five of his showdowns with the Canadian across the season, but the Canadian had given himself many chances to succeed on those occasions, falling in five sets when they collided in the semifinals of the Australian Open, leading by a set and a break in the final of the Aegon Championships at London's Queen's Club. Murray was composed and unerring in taking down Raonic in the Wimbledon final.
But Raonic put it all on the line in his first ever semifinal appearance at the Barclays ATP World Tour Championships. The Canadian clearly outplayed Murray in a triumphant opening set, conceding only seven points in six service games, breaking Murray at 5-5 on a double fault from the 29-year-old at 15-40. Murray had been in constant difficulty during that set, saving a break point in the fifth game and wiping away three more in a five deuce game at 4-4. Raonic was going strong, sparring surprisingly well with Murray from the backcourt, returning with consistency and good depth, testing an overwrought Murray at every juncture.
Raonic gained the early break for 2-1 in the second set. Up a set and a break, he was in command, but not for long. He played his worst game of the match when he was broken for the first time in the fourth game of that second set, making three straight glaring forehand unforced errors and enabling Murray back to 2-2. That set was settled in a tie-break, and the sequence was locked at 5-5 after Raonic worked his way back from 1-4. Raonic missed his first serve and was too passive, allowing Murray to take control, approach the net, and release a sparkling angled forehand drop volley winner. Murray took the tie-break 7-5. It was one set all.
Raonic compromised too much on his first serve in the final set. He had won 89% of his first serve points in the opening set. That number dropped to 74% in the second set, and went down to 65% in the third set.The reason was that Raonic elected to largely forego "the heat" of deliveries released at 135 MPH to 140 MPH and frequently stayed in the range of 115 MPH to 120 MPH. Murray was able to keep an inordinate number of first serve returns in play and Raonic was denied the chance to win his normal share of free points with unanswerable thunderbolts.
To be sure, Raonic won only 45% of his second serve points and did not want to offer Murray too many looks at those, but in my view the tradeoff backfired. The third set was tied at 4-4 when Raonic was broken at love, making three unprovoked mistakes in that game. Murray served for the match in the tenth game. At 30-40, he went to the drop shot for the second time in that game, much to his own detriment. Raonic chased it down, made a fine chipped backhand down the line, moved up to the net, and played an excellent forehand volley down the line. Murray had no other viable option but to lob, and Raonic put away an overhead unhesitatingly.
He had broken back for 5-5. In the following game, the 25-year-old recovered from 0-30 to 40-30. But he missed his first serve and Murray took control of the rally, drawing an error from an outstretched Raonic, who then double faulted. When Murray sliced a backhand down the line to coax a forehand mistake from Raonic, he carved out another break for 6-5 and soon served for the match a second time. But despite missing only one first serve in the twelfth game, Murray was broken at 15 by a determined and intelligent Raonic, who probed craftily from the backcourt and invited Murray to make errors.
And so, after an improbable stretch of four consecutive service breaks, after Murray had twice failed when serving for the match, after everything that had transpired, it all came down fittingly to a final set tie-break, and that sequence was absolutely riveting on both sides of the net. Murray grabbed a quick mini-break for 1-0, only to double fault. He moved ahead 2-1 with a down the line backhand drop shot winner. Raonic released an unstoppable first serve followed by an ace out wide in the deuce court: 3-2 for the Canadian.
Now Murray answered the challenge with an ace for 3-3. Raonic erred off the forehand to give the British standout a 4-3 lead. Raonic lost the next point, paying a substantial price for a cautious first serve. Murray's return was remarkably deep, setting up a forehand crosscourt winner. Raonic salvaged the next point with a deep approach setting up a simple volley, but now Murray had a 5-4 lead and the chance to close out the sparkling account on his own serve. Raonic, however, caught the top seed off guard, crushing a forehand and coming forward unexpectedly. Murray netted a forehand pass and the score was deadlocked at 5-5. Murray prevailed in an absorbing rally to take the next point.
Raonic now served at 5-6 and match point down. Midway through the point, the crowd thought Murray had finished the job, but Raonic drilled a scorching flat forehand down the line on the run that elicited a backhand error from a thoroughly compromised Murray. At 6-6, Raonic served down the T prodigiously, and all Murray could do was chip the return accidentally short and low. Raonic chipped his backhand approach long, giving Murray a second match point, this one on his own serve. But Raonic saved it with impressive tactical acuity, peppering the Murray backhand, sending his inside out forehand deliberately low and short, keeping his adversary uncomfortable. Murray missed a sliced backhand down the line long for 7-7 but served a clutch ace out wide in the deuce court for 8-7, reaching match point for the third time.
Here, Raonic was brave as could be. He served-and-volleyed to the Murray forehand and came forward swiftly, punching his first volley and camping out on top of the net. Murray understandably netted his forehand passing shot and it was 8-8. Raonic remained aggressive, connecting with a first serve, taking Murray's short return and approaching down the line off the forehand, rushing Murray into an errant passing shot. At last, Raonic had earned a match point for himself at 9-8, and he could almost taste the fruit of victory.
Murray missed his first serve but the second delivery was respectable. The favorite took control, approaching off the forehand, making Raonic play a difficult running backhand pass. The Canadian did not make that shot dip at all, and Murray was perfectly positioned for a backhand volley down the line. With poise and professionalism, Murray was back to 9-9. A magnificent slice serve out wide that was unmanageable for Raonic took Murray to 10-9 and his fourth match point. Raonic was serving once more under extreme duress, and he finally cracked. Murray made him run for a forehand, and Raonic had an opening down the line. But he faltered, sending that shot into the net.
The British player had survived an arduous ordeal to win 5-7, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (9). Djokovic followed that evening with his 66 minute dismissal of Nishikori. Had Murray not saved the match point against Raonic, Djokovic would have sealed the No. 1 ranking for the year just by knocking out the Japanese stylist. But now he had to beat his foremost rival in one of the most significant matches of the entire season.
In the opening game of the final, Murray's mental and physical fatigue seemed evident. He double faulted wide as he went down the T on the first point, moved ahead 30-15 but double faulted again, this time into the net. But Murray's second serve into the body at 30-30 worked and he held on at 30 despite missing five of six first serves. Djokovic performed beautifully in the second game, holding at love with four straight first serves, taking the last three points with an ace out wide and two un-returnable deliveries. Murray served much better in the third game, holding at 30, connecting with five of six first deliveries. Djokovic answered with another commanding love hold for 2-2.
After Murray held at 30 for 3-2, Djokovic seemed to lose his edge. At 30-30 in the sixth game, he was outgunned in a crosscourt forehand exchange by a sounder Murray. Djokovic saved a break point with a cagey sliced backhand inducing an error from Murray, who returned the favor in the next exchange to garner a second break point. Djokovic accelerated the pace on his forehand down the line to get an error out of Murray. On his second game point, Djokovic somehow missed an overhead from virtually on top of the net but he still held on tenuously for 3-3.
Murray, meanwhile, was encountering few problems on his own serve. He held for 4-3 at 15 with a scintillating backhand passing shot crosscourt winner. Djokovic reached 30-15 in the following game but miss-hit a backhand off an aggressive forehand from Murray. The Serbian advanced to 40-30 and stood one point away from 4-4. He wavered at that crucial juncture, sending a forehand down the line long. At deuce, Djokovic exposed his vulnerability again, needlessly hitting a forehand crosscourt short under no pressure, giving Murray the opening to put him on the defensive. Off balance, Djokovic netted a backhand. Down break point, he tried to rely too heavily on the sliced backhand, and Murray was having none of it. He forced an error from Djokovic off the forehand.
Murray had the break for 5-3, and the top seed held at 15 as his opponent made four unforced errors. Murray had taken the set 6-3. It was imperative for Djokovic to assert himself forcefully early in the second set, but he did nothing of the kind. The opening game was a debacle. He saved three break points and even had a game point, but was broken on an abysmal backhand unforced error. Murray held on confidently for 2-0 at 15, winning three free points on his delivery. Djokovic managed a comfortable hold in the third game, but his renowned return of serve was simply not evident on this occasion. Murray held at 15 with an ace out wide in the deuce court. He led 3-1. Djokovic was in utter disarray while Murray seemed implacable, performing with cool authority in the heat of a big occasion. Serving in the fifth game, the Serbian struggled mightily, netting an easy forehand down the line, and then driving a crosscourt forehand approach long for 0-30. Murray stung his adversary with a pinpoint backhand passing shot winner for 0-40. Djokovic took the next point but was broken at 15 with another self inflicted wound—a two-hander driven beyond the baseline.
Murray had achieved the insurance break for 4-1. He served at 30-15 in the sixth game, looking capable of a blowout triumph. But the fellow from Great Britain double faulted into the net to make it 30-30. Suddenly, Djokovic reminded everyone who he is and why he was playing for the No. 1 ranking. An extraordinarily deep return down the middle made Murray uncomfortable and he missed off the backhand. For the first time in the entire match, Djokovic had fashioned a break point, and he played it smartly, making a very good return off a 128 MPH first serve, dictating the point, directing a forehand inside-in to provoke a running forehand error from Murray.
Djokovic had managed to get one of the breaks back with that sudden flourish. He then held at love to close the gap to 4-3 for Murray. On the first point of the following game, Djokovic outperformed Murray in a 33 stroke exchange, yet Murray collected four points in a row for 5-3. Djokovic replicated that feat in the ninth game, making a precise first serve to set up a forehand winner behind the British player. Djokovic had found his range, but far too late. And yet, with Murray serving for the match, Djokovic discovered some magic that had been missing, and gave Murray cause for consternation.
Murray seemed headed for an easy hold when he served an ace for 30-0 but Djokovic climbed to 30-30 with some added pace and accuracy off the forehand. Murray advanced to 40-30 and his first match point but Djokovic majestically saved it with a deep return that set up a superb forehand approach. He closed in to put away an overhead for deuce, but Murray struck back boldly with a service winner down the T. Djokovic saved a second match point, producing a tremendous forehand return that opened up an avenue for a forehand inside out winner. At deuce again, Djokovic tried an aggressive forehand inside in, but could not pull it off. His late burst of brilliance was over. Murray came through on his third match point as Djokovic was off target with a forehand return. Murray had prevailed 6-3, 6-4.
In many ways, it was a disappointing contest. To his credit, Murray was solid, thoughtful, and confident. He played the percentages, knowing that was all he needed to do with Djokovic so far below par. Murray realized that nothing fancy was necessary. The mystery to me was why Djokovic did not make a concerted effort to prolong the rallies and try to wear down a rival who had played a marathon match the day before.
He should have forced Murray to play one long rally after another, to let his adversary know it was going to be a long and demanding afternoon from the backcourt. But, inexplicably, Djokovic failed to follow that game plan and allowed Murray to win too many relatively quick points. Djokovic was impatient and way off his game. He was strangely subdued for a match of this importance. He had the chance to finish a fifth year as the No. 1 ranked player in the world, but there was no sense of urgency in his demeanor despite the stakes being so high. He was extraordinarily flat. Djokovic seemed to believe that being emotive and doing some fist pumping would only turn the crowd even more against him, but I feel he was sorely mistaken in that notion.
In the Open Era, Pete Sampras is the only man to finish six years at the top, and he did so from 1993-98. Both Jimmy Connors and Federer have ended five years at No. 1. Djokovic was one match away from equalling the southpaw American and the Swiss Maestro, and then he would have been driven to tie Sampras in 2017, so his defeat was consequential to say the least.
Moreover, he was surely deeply motivated to win his sixth Barclays ATP World Tour Finals and tie Federer for the most titles won at that event. In turn, it was a chance for him to reassert himself at the end of the year after a disconcerting second half. But Djokovic did not seem to recognize that he could have won this match physically had he kept the points long and made Murray work much harder. For some inexplicable reason, Djokovic did not seem to believe in his defense, and so he stayed aggressive on a day when his execution off both sides was sorely lacking. That was baffling to me.
As for Murray, he must be admired immensely for coming from so far back in the middle of the year to finish as the best player in the world. He claimed a 44th career title. More importantly, he won the Barclays ATP World Tour Championships for the first time; he had never even been a finalist in his seven previous appearances. He concludes the single greatest year of his distinguished career with a 78-9 match record (.897). Winning Wimbledon, the Olympic Games and the World Tour Championships in the same year and nine titles altogether is a towering achievement for a genuinely humble individual who never anticipated success on that level.
Murray is the first player since Alex Corretja in 1998 to win the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals after saving at least one match point in the semifinals. Corretja saved three match points to beat Sampras that year a day before ousting Spanish countryman Carlos Moya in a five set final, somehow rallying from two sets down to win that match. The last time any player secured the year end No. 1 spot in the final of this tournament was back in 2000, when Guga Kuerten upended Andre Agassi to move past Marat Safin and finish at the top. That was in Lisbon.
Murray closed the year by winning his 24th match in a row, as well as his fifth tournament in succession. After that final round loss to Djokovic at Roland Garros, he won 50 of his last 53 matches to claim the No. 1 honor. He is only the 17th man since the rankings were introduced in 1973 to finish a year at No. 1. Ilie Nastase was the first in 1973, followed by Jimmy Connors (1974-78), Bjorn Borg (1979-80), John McEnroe (1981-84), Ivan Lendl (1985-87 and 1989), Mats Wilander (1988), Stefan Edberg (1990-91), Jim Courier (1992), Sampras (1993-98), Agassi (1999), Kuerten (2000), Lleyton Hewitt (2001-2002), Andy Roddick (2003), Federer (2004-2007, and 2009) Rafael Nadal (2008, 2010, 2013), Djokovic (2011-12,2014-2015), and now Murray (2016).
Murray knew full well that he did not beat a top of the line Djokovic in London, but that should be irrelevant in his mind. He succeeded for only the eleventh time in 35 career skirmishes against Djokovic, and the how and the why of it hardly matter. To wind up 2016 as the best tennis player in the world, he had to stop the Serbian in the final when the pressure could not have been greater. He met that moment with extraordinary character.