On Sunday, the Serbian went to work with unbridled passion once more on an auspicious occasion, taking on old rival Andy Murray in the final of the Mutua Madrid Open. Djokovic seemed even more highly charged than usual after losing his opening contest at the last tournament he played in the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters to Jiri Vesely. His meeting with Murray was a crucial confrontation in every way for Djokovic as he moves ever closer to Roland Garros and a bid to complete the career Grand Slam, starting that quest in just a couple of weeks.
Djokovic and the defending champion Murray were colliding for the 32nd time in their distinguished careers. The Serbian now holds a commanding 23-9 lead in the series, but Murray has been inexhaustible in battling to reverse that trend, in trying wholeheartedly to believe in himself and his chances. In this encounter on the Spanish red clay, Murray gave it his all again, but could not thwart Djokovic when it counted the most. In a match very well played on both sides of the net, Murray competed honorably, performed brilliantly for impressive stretches, and made his renowned adversary work inordinately hard in the latter stages before the favorite crossed the finish line.
And yet, Djokovic more than survived a stern test, and came away with a 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 triumph, defeating Murray for the twelfth time in thirteen appointments against the British player since Murray upended the Serbian in the Wimbledon final of 2013. Djokovic thus moved one title ahead of Rafael Nadal into first place on the all-time list of ATP World Tour Masters 1000 winners with 29 titles. Moreover, he captured his fifth championship of the still young 2016 season in seven outings, and now has amassed 64 career singles tournament victories. That puts the Serbian in a tie for sixth place on the Open Era list with 64 titles. Standing on that same platform with Djokovic are Pete Sampras and Bjorn Borg. Need I say more?
Let’s examine what happened in the Djokovic-Murray Madrid duel. In the early stages, all across the first set, Djokovic was only a whisker away from letter perfect. So sharp was the Serbian’s focus that he seemed lost in a private world, shutting out everything and everyone else, letting his shots flow freely, coming at Murray with the full range of his arsenal and artistry. Djokovic has made a habit out of starting big matches with his best and boldest tennis. This was a striking example of that.
From the moment he came out of the gates, Djokovic was magnificent. The first set was one of the finest he has played all year. He was measuring nearly every shot impeccably, serving with uncanny precision, and covering the court with extraordinary efficiency. In the opening game, he caught Murray entirely off guard with a deceptive forehand down the line. Murray meekly lobbed down the line, and the Serbian took his overhead on the bounce, putting it away easily. That gave Djokovic double break point. He missed out on the first, but sealed the break on the second, scampering forward to cover a Murray drop shot, directing his forehand down the line. Murray attempted a crosscourt backhand passing shot, but Djokovic anticipated that play alertly, punching his backhand volley down the line for a winner.
Djokovic had the immediate break, and then held at love for 2-0 after opening that game with a sidespin backhand drop shot winner down the line. Murray asserted himself in the third game, holding from 15-30 with an unstoppable body serve, an ace down the T and a service winner down the T. Unswayed, Djokovic held at 15 for 3-1 and then broke again in the fifth game, dropping only one point in the process. On break point, a superbly struck crosscourt backhand that pulled Murray out of position opened up an avenue for Djokovic to release a meticulously calculated inside out forehand winner.
Collecting eight points out of ten, Djokovic was two breaks up at 4-1. He promptly held at 15 for 5-1. He closed out that sterling sixth game with an ace down the T, and a pair of forehand winners, both set up by devastatingly accurate first serves down the T. Murray held from 15-30 for 2-5, but Djokovic closed out the set in the eighth game with another hold at 15. He had won 16 of 19 points on his delivery; Murray took only 11 of 23 points on his serve.
Murray was urging himself on demonstrably in the early stages of the second set. He survived a deuce game to move ahead 2-1, screaming “Come On” loudly to let Djokovic know that he was not giving up. At 30-40 in the fourth game, perhaps sensing Murray was poised to attack, Djokovic double faulted long. It was 3-1 for Murray.. He trailed 0-30 in the fifth game, but swept four points in a row with a service winner down the T, two aces down the T, and an ideally located first serve down the T that was unmanageable for Djokovic.
Having won three consecutive games, Murray was ahead 4-1. After Djokovic held routinely in the sixth game, Murray surged to 5-2 with a hold at love. Two games later, at 5-3, Murray served for the set. An ace down the T took the British competitor to 30-15. A bad mistake off the forehand from Djokovic extended Murray’s lead to 40-15, and then the No. 2 seed closed out the set in style with a backhand drop shot winner down the line. Set to Murray, 6-3. The two combatants were locked at one set all.
After leading 40-15 in the opening game of the final set, Djokovic lost the next two points for deuce. But he produced a biting second serve out wide to force a netted return, and then a first serve out wide in the ad court elicited a short return. Djokovic moved forward briskly to send a forehand into the clear for a timely winner, and a 1-0 lead.
The top seed had regained the initiative in the nick of time. On the opening point of the second game, Djokovic came out on top in a 27 shot exchange as Murray netted an easy forehand after forcing Djokovic to play a weak high backhand volley. Djokovic was buoyed by taking that strenuous point. He reached 15-40, and then won another taxing, 23 stroke rally when Murray’s topspin lob landed well beyond the baseline.
Djokovic had swiftly established a 2-0 final set lead. He got to 30-15 in the third game by prevailing in another tough rally that lasted 24 strokes, and seemed ready to establish a 3-0 lead. But he double faulted to make it 30-30, and served another double fault at break point down. Murray was back on serve. He held at 30 with an ace for 2-2. Djokovic may well have been internally disconcerted, but his outwardly calm demeanor remained totally evident. He held at love for 3-2, finishing that game off with a forehand winner and a delayed approach that paved the way for a forehand volley winner. Serving in the sixth game, Murray wandered into danger, missing a backhand drop shot, a backhand down the line, and then a forehand down the line on his way to a 15-40 deficit. Djokovic sealed the break for 4-2 right then and there with an astonishing backhand down the line winner landing on the line.
Behind 15-30 in the seventh game, Djokovic was both disciplined and tremendously determined. He reached 30-30 by winning a 22 stroke rally with a forehand down the line clipping the baseline. Murray could not handle the awkward bounce, netting a backhand. At 30-30, Djokovic hit a service winner down the T to draw a backhand return long. Following a familiar pattern when he stood at 40-30, Djokovic sent a first serve wide to Murray’s backhand. The return was predictably short, and Djokovic fully exploited the opening, rolling a forehand winner comfortably into the clear. He had advanced to 5-2 in the final set.
Down match point in the eighth game,after double faulting, Murray aced Djokovic down the T. He gamely held on for 3-5. Djokovic served for the match in the ninth game, and commenced that mission with surprising insecurity. A backhand unforced error followed by consecutive unprovoked mistakes off the forehand placed the Serbian in a 0-40 predicament. A major shift in fortunes seemed possible.
But Djokovic was implacable. He was the better man in a 22 stroke exchange, rising to 15-40. He made it back to 30-40 with a winning overhead, and reached deuce on an unforced error off the forehand from Murray. Murray, however, was not through. He garnered a fourth break point opportunity, but Djokovic saved that one with an inside out forehand that forced Murray into a sliced backhand error. Murray earned himself a fifth break point, but Djokovic erased it by controlling the next rally and coaxing Murray into another forehand error.
Murray was unrelenting, connecting boldly with a forehand down the line winner to arrive at break point for the sixth time. Djokovic was not budging. His first serve out wide resulted in a very short return from Murray. The Serbian put away the bounce smash. Djokovic then created his second match point chance, only to net a forehand feebly down the line. Murray’s competitive fury was undiminished. He made it to break point for the seventh time, but Djokovic would not falter, serving down the T inches from the center service line, setting up a forehand crosscourt winner. Now Murray’s errant forehand down the line gave Djokovic a third match point, and this one he secured as Murray netted a forehand inside-in.
That final game of the match was a gem. There were six deuces. Murray had no fewer than seven break points. But Djokovic was unshakable as he closed out a much needed triumph. It was a fitting way to conclude a high quality contest, with both players displaying some of their greatest shotmaking down the stretch, and Djokovic fending off a spirited final stand from a rival who was unwilling to go away quietly.
Djokovic had some anxious moments as well toward the end of his enthralling semifinal showdown with Kei Nishikori, the 2014 U.S. Open finalist who has been such a pillar of consistency as of late. Having won the first set 6-3, Djokovic served for the match at 5-4 in the second set. He had not yet been broken in the entire tournament, and the world No. 1 opened up a 40-0, triple match point lead in the tenth game. He had a setup forehand off a short return from Nishikori, who stayed home rather than sprinting for the open court. Djokovic drilled his forehand down the line wide. He double faulted at 40-15 and missed a simple backhand down the line at 40-30.
Djokovic advanced to match point for the fourth time but Nishikori outmaneuvered him in a 24 stroke rally that ended with a brilliant backhand down the line winner from the Japanese player off a short backhand slice from the Serbian. Djokovic served a second double fault, and then was broken for 5-5. At 5-6, Djokovic held on from deuce with some outstanding clutch serving, and then took the ensuing tie-break seven points to four, largely on the strength of some more supreme serving under pressure.
In the other semifinal, Murray avenged a recent defeat against Nadal in Monte Carlo, turning the tables with a 7-5, 6-4 victory over the Spaniard. A year ago, Murray had upended Nadal in the final of Madrid on a day when the tenacious southpaw was in disarray. This year, Nadal played reasonably well, but he was far from the top of his game. He was too often on his heels, scrambling to stay in points, largely at the mercy of Murray. In turn, Murray served stupendously on the big points.
Serving with a 4-2 lead in the opening set, Murray rallied from 15-40 to win four points in a row, holding on for 5-2. Nadal held at love and then broke at 30 for 4-5. He held again for 5-5. Nadal was back in business, but not for long. Murray steadfastly held from deuce at 5-5, and then broke the Spaniard at love to take the set, 7-5. The second set pattern was much the same. Murray saved three break points before holding for 1-0, wiped away two more break points on his way to 3-2, broke Nadal for 4-2, and battled back from 15-40 to reach 5-2.
In three different service games, Nadal had been to break point seven times, but had not succeeded once.The Spaniard held from deuce for 3-5. In the ninth game, Murray had a match point that he squandered with a flat backhand down the line long. One more break point eluded Nadal, but he broke through at last as Murray netted a forehand approach off a short return.
Nadal served to stay in the match at 4-5, but faltered flagrantly. He opened the last game with a forehand down the line winner, but was totally disheveled thereafter, missing a difficult forehand down the line, making an abysmal error off the forehand, netting a smash off a high defensive lob from Murray, and then netting an inside out forehand he would seldom miss. Murray had come through 7-5, 6-4. To be sure, his serving at break points down was commendable. His ball striking off both sides was better than Nadal’s. His attitude was excellent.
For that matter, Murray was in a good frame of mind in his final round defeat against Djokovic, who has won 10 of the last 14 ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournaments, including three of the four he has played in 2016. Djokovic is assembling his clay court game very nicely as he heads to Rome this week and then on to Roland Garros.
He has an abundance of very positive traits. As a competitor, his stature grows with every passing day. As a champion in the heart of his prime, he keeps looking for ways to improve. Above all else, Novak Djokovic is the best front runner we have seen in modern times, and perhaps of all time. After his latest triumph over Murray in Madrid, Djokovic is in first place among the men for the Open Era. He has a career match record of 633-27 (.959) when winning the first set.
He has now won 16 tournaments since the start of 2015, and that is not by accident. His meticulous craftsmanship and much under-appreciated mental toughness are taking this immensely ambitious repeatedly to lofty destinations. The feeling grows that the golden days of Novak Djokovic are far from over.