But lets not get ahead of ourselves. This is a time to reflect on Murray and his plight, to analyze what went wrong for the two-time major titlist, to put his year in perspective and to look ahead to what might be in store for the 27-year-old in 2015 and beyond. Murray has had only a mediocre year at best in 2014. But his results at the majors were no disgrace; he lost to Roger Federer in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, fell in the semifinals at Roland Garros to Rafael Nadal, was upended in the last eight at Wimbledon by Grigor Dimitrov, and now bows out in the quarterfinals again at the U.S. Open. Three quarterfinal showings and one semifinal appearance at the four Grand Slam events is decent work, and nothing to be ashamed of for a man who had back surgery in the fall of 2013. He performed remarkably close to the way he did in 2012 and 2013 at various times in this season at the majors, but was never able to win that one crucial match that would allow him to turn the corner and move up to the top of his talent.
Murray had played a superb match against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga here to earn his appointment against the top ranked player in the world. He ousted the Frenchman in straight sets, coming through 7-5, 7-5, 6-4 with high energy, brilliant shotmaking and excellent returning. Murray thus headed into his assignment with Djokovic feeling good about himself, liking his chances, sincerely hoping he could stop the Serbian under the lights in Arthur Ashe Stadium and perhaps get a big enough boost to move past two more opponents and garner a second U.S. Open title.
That, of course, did not happen. Lets look at what transpired in Murrays collision with Djokovic, which commenced with both players performing at a furious pace with unbridled enthusiasm. Make no mistake about it: the first set was the best one played in this contest. And it started auspiciously for Murray. He broke Djokovic in the opening game of the match after the No. 1 seed recovered from 15-40 to deuce. Murray gave himself a third break point chance, and took it with the shot he showcased more than any other on this night: the flat, running forehand crosscourt. Djokovic could not handle the pace and depth of that shot and he drove a forehand long down the line.
The buzz in the crowd was remarkable. Murray was off and running at 1-0. But he could not consolidate that break, double faulting at 40-30 in the second game. After four deuces, a persistent Djokovic coaxed a forehand error from Murray with a low backhand slice down the line. Djokovic was back even at 1-1, and then saved a break point on his way to 2-1 before breaking Murray at 15 for 3-1. Here Murray wounded himself with a poorly played drop volley, allowing Djokovic to scamper forward and steer a forehand passing shot low that was unmanageable for Murray. Djokovic continued to struggle on serve as Murray maintained an aggressive posture on his returns, particularly off the Serbians second serve. I have never seen Murray attack that second serve as well as he did for two-and-a-half sets in this match. He was uncompromising. He was determined to make Djokovic as uncomfortable as possible. He was ultra-aggressive.
In any case, Djokovic saved a break point in the fifth game to reach 4-1, intelligently serving-and-volleying behind an 86 MPH kicker, closing in for a forehand first volley winner. In the sixth game, Djokovic had Murray down 0-30, only to miss a forehand on the stretch after defending terrifically. Murray held on for 2-4, but then Djokovic had 40-30 on his own serve in the seventh game. He tamely netted a two-hander, then badly misplayed a forehand down the line, and was broken on a miss-hit backhand into the net. Murray could have lost that set easily 6-1 or 6-2, but instead he was right in there. He held for 4-4, and even had a break point for 5-4. But Djokovicwho was clearly agitated by a decidedly pro-Murray audiencesummoned his inner energy and sent an unstoppable first serve down the T, fading away from his opponent. Murray did not come close on his forehand return.
After a couple of deuces, Djokovic held on with a 123 MPH ace down the T followed by another unreturnable first serve down the T. Both players held their serves to set up a tie-break, with Murray acing Djokovic at 129 MPH out wide in the ad court on game point for 6-6. Murray had worked hard to make it to that tie-break, but he never got untracked during the crucial sequence. Murray double faulted to trail 0-2 and then netted a backhand off a deep return down the middle from Djokovic. Djokovic had 3-0. He captured that tie-break seven points to one with discipline, professionalism and sensible percentage tactics. Murray did not execute well off the ground. After 73 arduous minutes, after making a spirited comeback to stay in the set, after raising the hopes of his many boosters in the packed stadium, Murray had faltered badly to drop the set while Djokovic had performed with striking clarity and authority.
Murray started the second set with a magnificent service game, connecting with all five first serves, holding at 15 with a 134 MPH ace. But Djokovic held at love and broke Murray in the third game at the cost of only one point. The depth of his returns in that game was too much for Murray, who was lured into errors. Djokovic was up a set and a break. That is a place where he usually thrives. Give Djokovic an opening, allow him to establish a significant lead, put him in command, and he automatically responds with his finest tennis. Not so on this occasion.
After Djokovic made it easily to 3-1, Murray swept eight of nine points, breaking an insecure Djokovic in the sixth game by drawing the Serbian in with a cagey short return. Murray unleashed a sparkling backhand passing shot winner. He was back to 3-3. Once more, Djokovic went to work with gusto, breaking Murray in the seventh game with a point probably only he could have played. He fended off one big shot after another from Murray. His defense was extraordinary. Then, in a flash, Djokovic shifted to offense, hitting behind Murray to set up a forehand winner into the open court.
For the second time in the set, Djokovic had the break. But once more he did not exploit an important opening. After rallying from 15-40 to deuce, Djokovic netted a forehand down the line off a soft backhand slice from Murray. At break point, Murray released an inside out winner off the forehand. He was improbably at 4-4. Both players held with relative ease until Djokovic served at 5-6. He saved a set point in that game, coming forward to put away a high volley.
On the two men went to another tie-break. The pressure was fully on Murray, who did not want to find himself down two sets to love. But the players switched roles in this sequence. Djokovic was entirely too anxious. He pressed, made avoidable errors, and revealed his anxiety every step of the way. Murray was victorious seven points to one. It was one set all, and the players had been out there for two hours and six minutes. Djokovic was plainly not happy with his game or the crowd. He should have won that second set, but Murray played some inspired tennis and seized the initiative off the ground whenever possible.
And yet, Djokovic seemed to swiftly put the second set disappointment behind him, and he got on with the task at hand, holding at 15 in the opening game of the third set. Murray answered with a love hold of his own, but Djokovic was serving with more command now. He held at 15 for 2-1 with a 123 MPH service winner to the backhand. Murray was fading physically, and Djokovic sensed it. He broke Murray for a 3-1 lead at 15, and then rolled to 40-15 in the following game. But the Serbian became apprehensive again. After Murray made a backhand inside out return winner, Djokovic still stood at 40-30, but he sent a crosscourt overhead wide off a high defensive lob from Murray. Murray soon advanced to break point, but he lost a long rally, driving a flat two-hander crosscourt well wide. After three deuces, Djokovic held on for 4-1.
That was a crucial game. Although Murray held on for 2-4, he was clearly losing steam and feeling pain. Murrays movement became increasingly restricted and he was more and more vulnerable to Djokovics wide serves in both the deuce and ad courts. Djokovic held for 5-2 and then broke Murray again for the set after the British player had a 30-0 lead in the eighth game. Djokovic was up two sets to one, and clearly was not looking back.
Somehow, Murray stayed in the fourth set for longer than he had any right to do. It was all about pride. His first serve lost significant velocity and his groundstroke errors mounted. Djokovic saved a break point in the first game of that fourth set, sending a first serve wide to the Murray backhand at 122 MPH to set up a forehand crosscourt winner. He held on for 1-0 with an ace out wide in the ad court. Both players kept holding through that fourth set, although Murray labored much more than Djokovic. The Serbian might well have broken early had he not been so uptight, but he remained tentative and uncertain. Yet when Murray served to stay in the match at 4-5 in the fourth, he could no longer bluff. He fell behind 0-30 on a pair of forehand forced errors, won the next point, but then erred off the backhand. It was 15-40, double match point. Murray was guilty of one last mistake off the backhand. Djokovic had gained the triumph 7-6 (1), 6-7 (1), 6-2, 6-4.
Murray had played better than the score suggests. His running forehand crosscourt was reminiscent at times of Pete Sampras. He hit that shot with so much pace and depth that Djokovic was always hard pressed to defend against it. Furthermore, Murray mixed in the backhand slice with the two-handed drive skillfully. He came forward at the right times, and served explosively until the middle of the third set.
So why did he look so crippled during the last set? I got stiff in my hips and back toward the ends of the third set, he explained. I dont know exactly why. I mean, it was certainly coolish, you know, but Im certainly not injured. I didnt hurt anything. It was just, I think, fatigue and I stiffened up towards the end of the third set.
He was asked if he was surprised that his body would betray him after all the hard work he put in after Wimbledon with his training. Murray replied, Yeah, a little bit. I was a little disappointed to be honest because I did train very hard. I think what happened on the first Monday [cramping against Robin Haase], that was strange. I dont think that was anything. I think that was down to conditioning. I obviously messed something up with my eating or drinking. But you do the work for these matches, you know, so I would have liked to have felt a little better towards the end.
Murray needs to sort everything out for next year. His 2014 Grand Slam season is over, and he surely believes he can improve markedly at the majors over the next couple of years. I have no doubt that he will. Murray could very well win one or two more majors in the next three years, and he almost surely will. In the meantime, he has to get his body right. To be serving in the range of 126 to 129 MPH almost at will in the first two sets and then slip to 95 MPH thereafter was a clear sign of weakening and wilting. Murray has put in too much effort for that to happen.
The view here is that he will come back strong in 2015 and have a very good year. He dazzled the fans against Novak Djokovic for quite a while, and then faded. Djokovic had something to do with that because he imposes his physicality so well and makes it apparent that he is ceding no ground in that department. But Murray needs to let this loss sink in, learn from it, and move on. He will get his share of serious chances at the majors over the next few years; of that, I am certain.