The deep commitment he made in securing three titles toward the end of last year and concluding that season back at No. 6 in the world enabled Murray to approach the 2015 campaign with renewed vigor. Murray has been playing some of the best sustained tennis of his career throughout this season. Coming into Montreal, he had already won three titles. He had reached one major final and had twice advanced to the penultimate round at the Grand Slam events. His reliability across the board on a week in, week out basis has been remarkable to say the least.
But during this stretch, Murray had found himself always on the losing end of some bruising skirmishes against Djokovic. The world No. 1 had eclipsed Great Britain’s best player in the finals of the Australian Open, the semifinals of Indian Wells, the title round clash in Miami and most recently in the semifinals of Roland Garros. Altogether, Djokovic had toppled Murray no fewer than eight consecutive times since the British competitor had prevailed in their Wimbledon final of 2013, taking a commanding 19-8 lead in the rivalry. Time and again, Djokovic had been the man who had thwarted Murray in crucial confrontations, on occasions of lasting importance, at moments of consequence.
But timing is everything, on the tennis court and in the larger game of life. Murray had opened his hard court campaign leading up to the U.S. Open with an exasperating loss at the hands of Teymuraz Gabashvili in Washington, serving for the match at 5-4 in the final set only to falter in the end. He came to Montreal determined to find his range and elevate his level of play decidedly. Murray did not lose a set on his way to the final round appointment with Djokovic, accounting for Tommy Robredo, Gilles Muller, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Kei Nishikori unhesitatingly.
As for Djokovic, he had been less than stellar as he appeared in his first tournament since securing a third Wimbledon singles crown in July. Djokovic had a recurring issue with his elbow in Montreal. He needed some good fortune and a champion’s survival instincts to turn back a revitalized Ernests Gulbis in a quarterfinal under the lights. Djokovic dropped the opening set in that riveting contest, went down a break in the second set at 3-2, but rallied to establish a 5-4 lead before two set points eluded his grasp. They went to a tie-break, with Gulbis serving at double match point, ahead 6-4. He became too cautious and Djokovic refused to let the Latvian get away with it, lacing an inside out forehand for a clean winner.
Serving at 5-6, still behind match point, Djokovic was sensibly solid, and Gulbis cracked, driving a two-hander down the line that travelled long. Djokovic escaped to gain a 5-7, 7-6 (7), 6-1 victory, and then handled the Frenchman Jeremy Chardy 6-4, 6-4 with consummate ease, never coming close to losing his serve. Chardy, by the way, had accounted for John Isner in a triple tie-break clash, saving seven match points in that hard fought victory. Isner had won Atlanta two weeks earlier before reaching the final of Washington, which he lost to Nishikori. Three weeks in a row is too much tennis for the 6’10” American, who would have been better off bypassing Canada and resting for Cincinnati this week.
In any event, it all came down to Djokovic and Murray in a highly anticipated duel, and they produced one of the most entertaining and surely the single most compelling Masters 1000 final of the 2015 season. From the outset, Murray looked much more comfortable from the backcourt. His forehand was penetrating, aggressive and surprisingly consistent. He flattened out his backhand dependably and beat the Serbian to the punch. He exploited the fact that Djokovic’s second serve was not as biting as usual, taking his returns early, stepping in to crush those shots, putting his opponent on the defensive. Murray was simply sharper across the board than Djokovic, who relied to his own detriment on too much defense.
The elbow issue seemed to rob Djokovic of the necessary freedom to hit his best and biggest second serves and to release first serves of sufficient velocity to keep Murray at bay. Murray was the aggressor in a good many rallies and he was handling the windy conditions better than Djokovic. But more than anything else, Murray’s second serve was largely trustworthy. He got such good depth on that second delivery and located it so well that he prevented the Serbian from making punishing returns with regularity.
Murray established an early lead, breaking Djokovic for 3-1 in the first set. Serving with the wind at his back, Murray released an ace down the T at deuce and held on for 4-1 with a deep forehand approach down the line that provoked a passing shot mistake from a harried Djokovic. The top seed was in danger of losing that set in lopsided fashion. In the sixth game, he trailed 15-40 but erased the first break point with a forehand swing volley winner and saved the second with a strategically placed first serve down the T that drew a return error on the stretch from Murray. Djokovic eventually held on for 2-4, but Murray led 40-30 in the following game, one point away from advancing to 5-2.
Djokovic unleashed a two-hander down the line behind Murray, eliciting an error. He would break back by disrupting his opponent’s rhythm with a series of neatly executed sliced backhands. Djokovic held in a tough game for 4-4 and then had a break point in the ninth game that might have altered the outcome of the match if the Serbian had been able to convert it. But Murray’s courageously deep second serve forced Djokovic into a short return. Murray promptly moved forward to drive a crosscourt forehand into the clear. That was a clutch stand at a pivotal moment, and a sign of things to come. Murray steadfastly held on for 5-4. At 15-30 in the tenth game, Djokovic unmistakably pressed, missing a two-hander off a relatively short ball. Djokovic saved one set point at 15-40 but faltered badly on the next one, mishitting a backhand down the line. Set to Murray, 6-4.
Perhaps sapped by the extraordinary effort required to move past Djokovic in the opening set, Murray commenced the second set devoid of energy, and did not win a point in the first two games. Djokovic sensed a chance to break the set wide open. After Murray led 40-0 in the third game, the Serbian twice got to deuce. But Murray served a pair of aces to hold on for 1-2, going out wide with both deliveries. Djokovic held at 15 with an ace of his own for 3-1, but Murray was no longer spent. Buoyed by another ace that took him to 40-0, Murray held at love in the fifth game and broke back for 3-3 after two deuces, blasting a second serve return off the backhand that left Djokovic helpless.
Murray was serving with the wind in the seventh game, but started inauspiciously with a double fault that was way long. At 30-40, Djokovic’s return was not deep, but Murray’s inside out forehand clipped the net-cord and landed wide. Djokovic had the break again, and then held from 15-30 for 5-3 with some of his best serving of the match, releasing an ace, an excellent second serve and a strong first serve. Serving for the set two games later, Djokovic got to 40-0 in style, drawing Murray in with a drop shot, anticipating the response, moving forward to send a forehand volley into the open court for a winner. He held at 15 to seal the set at 6-4.
Both players were depleted after two hours of taxing tennis. They left the court for the locker room, but when they returned Djokovic had an immediate opening. Murray double faulted to fall behind 0-15 in the first game of the final set. At 30-30, Djokovic made one of his most sterling shots of the match, chasing down a Murray drop shot and lofting a lob crosscourt over Murray’s head for an astonishing winner. It was break point for the Serbian, with a familiar pattern seemingly about to be repeated. Djokovic had closed out Murray 6-0 in the fourth and final set of the Australian Open final. He had taken the third and last set of their Miami final 6-0 as well, and triumphed 6-1 in the fifth set at the French Open.
An early break in Montreal might have catapulted Djokovic toward another decisive victory in a final set. But Murray’s first serve wide to the backhand was too good at break point down. Djokovic chipped a return long. Murray came through with two more unreturnable first serves to get the critical hold for 1-0. With Djokovic serving in the second game, Murray went to work with relish. At deuce, he approached the net behind a second serve return off the forehand, rushing Djokovic into a passing shot error. He then achieved the break for 2-0 with a superb backhand crosscourt approach setting up a winning forehand volley. Serving at 15-15 in the following game, Murray made an outstanding low forehand volley winner down the line, a shot so sublime that Djokovic applauded with his racket. Murray held for 3-0 at 15 with a barrage of penetrating shots leading to a forehand winner, and a well placed second serve down the T drawing a netted return on the stretch from Djokovic.
Here was Murray, in the enviable territory of 3-0 in the final set, ready to make amends for a long line of losses to his primary rival, poised to win. But Djokovic is as prideful a champion as there is in tennis. He knew he was marginally off his game and realized that Murray was performing at peak efficiency, but now Djokovic raised the stakes in a supreme effort to wrestle control of the match back from his adversary. He very nearly did just that.
Djokovic was down 0-30 in the fourth game but he put away an easy overhead emphatically. The overhead had been a major liability for Djokovic earlier in the contest, but that winning smash propelled him. He followed with an inside out forehand winner, and soon held at 30 for 1-3. The next game was the centerpiece of the match, exceedingly well played on both sides of the net, vital to the chances of each player. Murray led 40-15 but Djokovic walloped a forehand return winner and then got to deuce on another winning overhead. The battle was on. Murray reached game point for the third time, but Djokovic exploded off the forehand, setting up a drop shot winner.
All in all, there would be ten deuces in that fifth game of the final set. Djokovic advanced to break point six times. It lasted nearly 18 minutes. Murray saved the first break point stylishly, using a heavy kick second serve to open up a space for a backhand down the line winner. He double faulted badly to give Djokovic a second break point, but Murray came forward and made an effective forehand drop volley down the line, forcing Djokovic to scamper forward and send a lob long. Murray double faulted again to allow Djokovic a third break point, but the Serbian missed an arduous forehand return. Murray saved a fourth one with a service winner as Djokovic barely touched the return.
On Djokovic’s fifth break point, Murray came forward to play a nifty backhand drop volley for a winner. On his sixth, the Serbian was beaten by the pace of Murray’s first serve to the backhand, chipping his return long. Murray moved to 4-1 on his sixth game point, catching Djokovic off guard with a clever body serve. Djokovic held on comfortably for 2-4, but Murray surged to 5-2 with a love hold, including three unreturnable first serves.
With Djokovic serving to stay in the match, the favorite was thrice down match point, but he erased the first with a wide serve to the backhand that was too good. He saved the second on an errant two-hander from Murray and cancelled the third with a deep backhand crosscourt volley that provoked a passing shot mistake.
Djokovic held on gamely and steadfastly for 3-5, and now Murray served for the match. At 15-30, he went crosscourt off a very short ball, but Djokovic guessed right, making a scintillating forehand crosscourt lob. Murray chased it but missed wildly off the forehand. It was double break point for Djokovic. Murray located his second serve accurately down the T, and Djokovic missed the backhand return. A service winner down the T from Murray made it deuce. Murray aced Djokovic for his fourth match point, but Djokovic saved it audaciously with a forehand crosscourt winner off a backhand slice from his opponent.
Murray somehow weathered the severity of this storm. His inside in forehand drew an error on the run from Djokovic. Down match point for the fifth time, Djokovic missed a routine two-hander crosscourt. Murray had prevailed 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 in three hours for his fourth tournament triumph of the year and his biggest match win of the season. Murray connected with 60% of his first serves in the match, but lifted that percentage up to 70 in the third set, saving nine break points spread across three different service games. The combination of his heavier artillery from the backcourt and his excellent serving on the big points carried him deservedly past Djokovic.
Murray has now won eleven Masters 1000 singles titles over the course of his career. This was his third triumph at the Coupe Rogers event in Canada, his fourth title run of 2015, and the 35th tournament victory of his career. He moves past Roger Federer to No. 2 in the world. Djokovic had won his last five Masters 1000 events and 30 matches in a row at that elite level. He had been victorious in his previous twelve Masters 1000 final round appearances since losing to Roger Federer at Cincinnati three years ago. That amply demonstrates the size of Murray’s achievement.
Meanwhile, Rafael Nadal exploited a good draw and cast aside Sergiy Stakhovsky and Mikael Youzhny to reach the Montreal quarters, but his 6-2, 6-4 loss to Nishikori was alarming. To be sure, the Spaniard’s 7-0 career winning record over the Japanese icon did not accurately reflect the recent past. In 2014, he pushed Nadal long and hard in a straight set loss at the Australian Open, and then Nishikori opened up a 6-2, 4-2 lead in the final of Madrid in the spring before losing six games in a row and retiring with an injury. This time around, Nadal and Nishikori clashed under the lights.
The Spaniard commenced that contest with some sparkle, holding serve, reaching break point in the second game. But he did not convert, and Nishikori seized control of that set completely. Nadal was thoroughly outplayed from the baseline, and the Japanese competitor was timing his shots impeccably off both sides. There were no holes in his game. But Nadal frequently pressed, most disturbingly at 1-3. He was ahead 30-0 but served consecutive double faults and was soon broken at 30. Nishikori glided through the set 6-2 and charged to a 4-1, two service break lead in the second.
Nadal at last found a higher level. In the sixth game, he broke at 15 with some superb returning and one exquisitely angled backhand crosscourt drop volley winner. He held from 0-30 for 3-4 and had a 15-30 opening in the following game. But Nishikori held on for 5-3 and comfortably closed out a 6-2, 6-4 triumph over the Spaniard. To be sure, Nadal was hindered by the humid conditions in the evening, sweating profusely throughout the battle. But he played as if he did not think he could win, as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders. That was inexplicable to me. He needs to make sharp amends this week in Cincinnati if he wants to be a factor at the U.S. Open.
Murray will undoubtedly be a strong contender in New York. Not only has he made that important move back to No. 2 in the world on the Emirates ATP Rankings, but he has solidified his No. 2 status in the Race to London, which only counts points earned during the 2015 season rather than the 52 week cycle. In the ATP Rankings, Djokovic has 14,265 points with Murray in second place at 8660. Federer is 595 points behind the man he beat in the semifinals of Wimbledon. But in the Race, Djokovic has 10,185 points with Murray at 6830 in the No. 2 slot. And yet, Murray has a healthy lead over everyone else. Stan Wawrinka is at No. 3 with 4600 points and Federer is close behind his countryman with 4525 points at No. 4.
Before I leave you, allow me to weigh in briefly on the Nick Kyrgios matter. There is no need to repeat what he said to Wawrinka during their second round meeting in Montreal. It was disgraceful. The ATP World Tour promptly fined Kyrgios for his unacceptable behavior. But they need to send a much larger and louder message to the obstreperous Australian. Kyrgios deserves a suspension. He must be reprimanded much more severely. That kind of conduct goes well beyond the bounds of decency in a professional sport. It is intolerable.
Kyrgios will someday be a major champion; about that, I am convinced. But he must live up to certain standards of behavior. He is harming not only himself but the game with his undisciplined and unseemly ways. The players should line up in unison and demand a strong penalty for Kyrgios. That punishment must not be merely monetary, but an enforced time away from the sport to teach him what really matters in life.