One of the finest athletes in all of sports, Djokovic has now captured the Miami Open five times. He has raised his record in Masters 1000 finals to 22-10. He has elevated his career record in finals at all events to 51-23. In the title round at Miami, Djokovic won another bruising and compelling skirmish over old rival Andy Murray, eclipsing the two-time major champion 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-0 in two hours and 47 minutes. The Djokovic-Murray rivalry was close up until a couple of years ago, with Djokovic holding an 11-8 lead in the career series. But now Djokovic has ousted Murray no fewer than seven times in a row, and it has become increasingly apparent that the Serbian is not only superior as a defender and in a tactical sense, but also decidedly stronger inside the recesses of the mind.
In the end, Djokovic’s mental toughness and match playing prowess were the twin motors of his victory over Murray in their latest encounter. For two sets, Murray was the better ball striker. He was on top of most of the rallies, pushing Djokovic around ruthlessly from the baseline, driving his flat two-hander crosscourt with an awful lot of sizzle. His forehand was first rate as well. Djokovic is indisputably the game’s most masterful defender, but he was playing defense to an unhealthy degree. Perhaps he did not expect Murray to come at him so furiously and persistently from the backcourt. Maybe he was uncomfortable in the heat after playing his previous two contests under the lights in the evening.
Whatever the case, Djokovic was ill at ease from the early stages of the encounter, and Murray was taking the ball earlier, getting much better depth on his shots, and competing with much more conviction. The Serbian survived a three deuce opening game of the match on his serve, saving a break point with a neatly executed low backhand volley down the line, forcing Murray into an errant passing shot. Djokovic eventually held on for 1-0 on his third game point, but unmistakably Murray had the upper hand. He held at love for 1-1 and then broke Djokovic in the following game. Djokovic was serving into the burdensome early afternoon sun. At break point, Murray approached the net behind a flat forehand, and Djokovic’s lob was too short. Murray easily dispatched an overhead into the clear.
But now the British player had to face the sun on his own serve. He wasted a 30-0 lead, making a careless error and double faulting on the next two points. Murray advanced to 40-30 but his backhand down the line going behind Djokovic was narrowly wide. Djokovic broke back for 2-2 after two deuces. At 3-3, serving into the sun again, Djokovic lost his serve at love, committing four unforced errors in that game, making three of those costly mistakes off the backhand. But Djokovic retaliated in the next game, breaking at 15 after a succession of unprovoked mistakes from Murray. It was 4-4. Both players had broken twice. The rallies were long and debilitating. Murray especially recognized the importance of taking the opening set.
Djokovic is the sport’s premier front runner. His career record after winning the first set in his matches is an exemplary 549 wins and only 26 defeats for a winning percentage of .955. That is the best in the Open Era. On that list at No. 2 is Bjorn Borg, followed by Rafael Nadal, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, and Roger Federer (at No. 7 with a .930 percentage). Rounding out the top ten are Murray, Arthur Ashe and Eddie Dibbs. In his last 39 career finals, Djokovic had lost only once when winning the opening set, and that was against the redoubtable Rafael Nadal on the Spaniard’s favorite court in the final of the 2014 French Open.
So Murray knew full well that he had to pull out all of the stops to win the first set. Both men held two more times to set up a tie-break, but not before Murray rescued himself commendably at 5-6. Down 0-30 in the twelfth game, he released a gorgeous backhand drop shot winner down the line, and then reached 30-30 with a magnificent two-handed backhand crosscourt winner concluding an absorbing 35 stroke exchange.
Four times in that crucial game, Murray was two points away from losing the set, but he held on sternly, standing up to that test with character. After 59 exhausting minutes, the two men commenced the critical tie-break. Djokovic played the first six points from the preferable side of the court, and took full advantage of it. He opened with an unstoppable first serve for 1-0, and then benefitted from a pair of unforced errors off the backhand from Murray. Djokovic produced a surprise serve-and-volley combination, putting away a first volley for 4-0. He double faulted to make it 4-1, and Murray followed with a forehand winner.
After the players changed ends of the court, the next point was pivotal. Djokovic miss-hit a ball off the forehand that he sent down the middle of the court, and Murray had too much time to think. He let the ball play him, and drove an awkward forehand into the net. Djokovic thus moved to 5-2, with two service points to come. Murray closed the gap to 5-3 but then erred off the forehand as Djokovic gave him almost no pace with a down the middle shot. Serving at 3-6, Murray was spent. Djokovic directed a forehand deep down the middle, and Murray netted a two-hander. The set had gone to an opportunistic yet largely outplayed Djokovic, seven points to three.
At 1-1 in the second set, Djokovic had an opening to seize control of the contest and perhaps move inexorably to a straight set victory. He had four break points in that crucial third game, but Murray was not budging. He served his way skillfully out of that crisis. He erased the first break point when Djokovic drove a forehand return off a first serve long, cancelled the second with a topspin lob winner, wiped away the third with an ace out wide in the ad court at 130 MPH, and saved the fourth when Djokovic caught the net tape with a down the line backhand return. A gutsy Murray held on for 2-1. Djokovic saved a break point himself in the fourth game and held on for 2-2. But Murray had his bearings, continued to largely dictate play with his more penetrating ground game, and sensed that he could win the set if given the right opening.
He found it. Djokovic was clearly devoid of energy and inspiration at this stage of the match, and Murray was sprightlier. With Djokovic serving to stay in the second set at 4-5, Murray made his move. Djokovic opened the tenth game with a tired error, netting an inside in forehand. He double faulted for 0-30. On the next point, he failed to put away an overhead—a recurring problem in the match—and Murray passed him crosscourt off the forehand. Now at 0-40, triple set point, Murray struck gold off the backhand, rifling a second serve return crosscourt for an emphatic winner. He had broken at love in style to make it one set all. The match was just over two hours old, and briefly Murray seemed to have the younger outlook.
But that highly charged moment for the British player was fleeting. Djokovic was infuriated by his plight. But the defending champion swiftly cast aside his anger, discontentment and frustration, and threw himself full throttle into the first game of the final set. Murray led 30-15 on his serve, but Djokovic at last found a way to stop endlessly defending. He made it back to 30-30 with some much needed aggression, opening up the court with a crackling crosscourt forehand, then driving an inside out forehand for an outright winner. Murray responded mightily with an ace down the T at 135 MPH for 40-30, but Djokovic coaxed a backhand error from his adversary with a solid return of serve.
At deuce, Murray had three opportunities to put away overheads, but failed to do so. On the last of those Murray smashes, Djokovic went for a forehand passing shot and drew a netted forehand volley from his opponent. Murray saved a break point with an excellent backhand approach that was unanswerable, but then netted a two-hander after Djokovic put on a stellar display of defense. At break point for the second time in that game, Djokovic converted as a seemingly fatigued Murray netted another backhand. He had connected with only four of ten first serves in that pendulum swinging game.
Djokovic was reawakened. Murray took him to deuce in the second game but Djokovic stymied the No. 3 seed with a wide deuce court serve. At game point, Murray drew Djokovic forward with a drop shot. Djokovic angled a backhand crosscourt, but Murray was well positioned for a backhand volley down the line. Djokovic retreated gracefully and demonstrated his supreme athleticism, making an elegant forehand crosscourt passing shot at an acute angle with wondrous racket head control. It was 2-0 for the surging, ineffably agile Serbian.
Murray realized how radically the match had changed in the space of ten minutes. He double faulted to fall behind 0-40 in the third game but admirably rallied for deuce on an errant Djokovic backhand, a service winner and a sweetly struck backhand down the line winner. Djokovic garnered a fourth break point, but Murray saved it by attacking unhesitatingly. When the Serbian went to break point for the fifth time, he punched a backhand volley long down the line. Murray—desperate to avoid a two break deficit—advanced to game point, but to no avail. Djokovic’s return of serve landed very close to the baseline, forcing Murray to play a difficult half volley. Djokovic promptly stepped in for a forehand crosscourt winner.
With the score locked at deuce again, Murray punched a backhand volley crisply down the line, but Djokovic scampered across the court to throw up a reasonably deep lob off the forehand. Murray bungled the smash, giving Djokovic a sixth break point. This one he took as Murray netted a backhand down the line. Djokovic now had the luxury of a two break lead after Murray’s obstinate stand. Murray had put only seven of fourteen first serves in during that long game.
After two hours and 33 minutes, Djokovic was poised for victory, in command, with his mind cleared, his body revitalized and his vision uncluttered. He held at love for 4-0 as Murray lost all four points on frustrated mistakes. He was trying to hit his way out of trouble, but the openings were not really there. And yet, Murray continued to spur himself on, and kept fighting earnestly. Serving at 0-40, 15-40, he made it back to deuce, only to miss a running forehand and then a backhand crosscourt. Djokovic served for the match at 5-0, but Murray was still not surrendering. He fashioned a break point, but Djokovic went on the attack with an inside out forehand approach eliciting a lob that landed long off the Murray backhand.
Djokovic was ready to apply the finishing touches. He released a backhand down the line drop shot to draw a beleaguered Murray in, and then rolled a topspin lob winner out of reach. At match point, Djokovic serve-volleyed behind a kick first delivery, opening up the court beautifully for a backhand first volley winner down the line into a wide open space. The conclusion of this contest was reminiscent in some ways of Djokovic’s 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-0 win over Murray in this year’s Australian Open final. But Murray should not be castigated for losing a love set in the end. Only one game in the third set of the Miami final did feature at least one deuce. Murray fought hard to the very end. But Djokovic was an unshakable and unrelenting force once he sensed that he could no longer be beaten.
And so the Serbian has mastered Murray ten times in a row on hard courts since he last lost to the British stalwart on that surface in the final of the 2012 U.S. Open. Moreover, Djokovic’s seven match winning streak over Murray (that now puts him ahead in the rivalry 18-8) began after Murray bested Djokovic in the 2013 Wimbledon final. In 2012 and 2013—when Murray captured his two majors along with an Olympic gold medal—he had three enormously important triumphs over Djokovic, taking both of his Grand Slam titles over the Serbian and also upending him in the semifinals of the Olympic Games on the Centre Court of Wimbledon.
But all of that looks like ancient history at the moment as Djokovic piles up victory after victory over Murray. Murray has simply not been able to overcome his three chief rivals since he had back surgery in the autumn of 2013. Since that time, he has not only lost those seven consecutive contests to Djokovic, but also his last three meetings with Federer and his two showdowns with Nadal. The fact remains that Murray is taking apart nearly everyone else in the sport, and he deservedly rises to No. 3 in the world this week.
For Djokovic, the long march to the title in Miami was never routine. He opened in the second round (after a first round bye) against the left-handed Martin Klizan, and established a 6-0, 5-3 lead, but dropped four games in a row to lose the second set before recouping boldly for a 6-0, 5-7, 6-1 victory. In his next meeting with the Belgian Steve Darcis, Djokovic swept through the first set without losing a game again, but Darcis served for the second set before Djokovic pulled through 6-0, 7-5. He then took on the audacious and unpredictable shotmaker Alexandr Dolgopolov and was close to the brink of defeat. Djokovic saved a break point at 0-3 in the second set and later served to stay in the match at 4-5 before turning that match around and winning 6-7 (1), 7-5, 6-0. He performed with considerably more stability and clarity in downing David Ferrer on the indefatigable Spaniard’s 33rd birthday 7-5, 7-5, and then accounted for a resurgent John Isner 7-6 (3), 6-2.
Isner had his best tournament in a long time. The 6’10” American had been understandably dismayed after performing abysmally in a Davis Cup defeat against Great Britain’s James Ward (followed by a far better showing in defeat against Murray) but then had played a terrific match against Djokovic in the round of 16 at Indian Wells, dropping that collision 6-4, 7-6 (5), losing his serve only once in two excellent sets against the game’s greatest returner. That was a significant step in the right direction.
But Isner made much larger strides in Miami. He clipped No. 9 seed Grigor Dimitrov 7-6 (2), 6-2 in the third round and then brought down No. 5 seed Milos Raonic 6-7 (3), 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5). The two big servers were unwavering in this clash and not a service break was to be found across three sets for either player. Isner could well have won the first set. Raonic was serving at 4-5, 0-30 when the towering American came forward for a backhand volley crosscourt, missing it narrowly. Raonic held on and outplayed Isner in the tie-break. In the second set tie-break, Raonic had a double mini-break lead, serving at 3-0. But he allowed that opportunity to evaporate. Isner took that tie-break and was too good in the final set tie-break as well.
Ousting Raonic allowed Isner to get a shot at No. 4 seed Kei Nishikori, and his display on that balmy sunny day was devastatingly potent and purposeful. Isner crushed the U.S. Open finalist 6-4, 6-3 to set up a semifinal appointment with Djokovic. Isner played a first rate opening set to reach a tie-break, but Djokovic worked him over strategically and sensibly by getting so many returns in play. In his six service games leading to the tie-break, Isner served no less than 56 points, and that did him in. Djokovic played a clutch tie-break and stormed to victory from there with two service breaks in the second set. Until that second set, Isner had not lost his fearsome serve in the entire tournament. In turn, he was exploiting his explosive flat forehand with uncanny regularity.
In 2012, Isner toppled Federer in a Davis Cup match, and also removed Djokovic in the semifinals of Indian Wells. The following year, he went all the way to the final of Cincinnati with wins over Raonic, Djokovic and Juan Martin Del Potro. This was the best tennis he has played since those two stretches, and he may well have surpassed those efforts. He has set the stage perhaps for his best year yet. The hope here is that Isner will take this form out onto the clay and keep challenging the best in his profession. On his finest days, Isner can beat anyone in the world on any surface, but he can’t afford to rest on his laurels now. The hard work must continue. He must strive for larger and more concrete goals.
Meanwhile, Serena Williams came through to win Miami for the eighth time in her sterling career. In the final, she cut down Carla Suarez Navarro 6-2, 6-0. Serena was first rate in that title round duel. She captured the last ten games of the match from 2-2 in the opening set. After saving a break point in the first game of the second set, Williams secured 23 of the last 25 points to close out the account. Williams sparkled in every way, and played some of her highest caliber tennis of the tournament. But the No. 12 seed Suarez Navarro—who rallied tenaciously for a 0-6, 6-1, 7-5 win over Venus Williams in the quarterfinals—did not acquit herself well in the final. Her performance was borderline unprofessional. She is now up there among the elite top ten in the world, but against Serena her tameness in defeat was disconcerting to those who expected a more urgent effort.
It was bad luck for the women that the Williams-Simona Halep match was not the final. Halep pushed Serena down to the wire in a stirring semifinal before losing 6-2, 4-6, 7-5. Williams was spectacular all through the first set in every facet of the game, and seemed to be headed for a decisive triumph. But the industrious Halep buckled down in the second set. Her court coverage and footwork are outstanding, and she stayed with Serena until she secured a break at 4-4 in the second set, and then served it out impressively.
Serena raised the stakes again in the final set to move out in front 5-2, but she was spraying too many balls out of court and perhaps was overplaying because Halep was so quick and resourceful on the run. Halep took three games in a row to make it 5-5, but Williams closed it out with a flourish, winning eight of ten points to seal the win. Halep may well become Serena’s chief challenger this year. I hope they meet two or three times on the upcoming clay court circuit. Halep did not get to the French Open final and nearly win that tournament a year ago by accident.
Djokovic did not sweep Indian Wells and Miami back to back just by chance either. He was unswerving, durable and a craftsman through and through. Murray is getting married this weekend, but an ironclad Djokovic was in no mood to give his longtime rival an early wedding present in Miami. He won his third title of the still young 2015 season with a nod to substance over style. The greatest player in the game of tennis seems to invent new ways to win almost every time he steps on the court.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time”