Djokovic has secured his sixth Australian Open singles crown to place himself in a tie with Roy Emerson for most titles taken ” Down Under”, although Emerson captured all of his championships as an amateur in the 1960’s when so many of the leading players were engaged in professional tennis. Moreover, Djokovic has raised his total of majors to 11, and so he is tied in that category with none other than the beloved Rod Laver and the immensely respected Bjorn Borg. On the all time historical ladder for the men, Djokovic is climbing steadily and unhesitatingly. He is only one title behind Emerson, and just three back of the dynamic duo of Rafael Nadal and Pete Sampras.
Roger Federer, of course, stands alone at the top with 17 Grand Slam championships, but suddenly that lead for the Swiss Maestro seems no longer safe. Djokovic is 28, as fully committed to claiming big titles as he has ever been, and dreaming only of the largest historical quests. He has won four of the last five majors, and five of the last seven. Only a few years ago, his credentials as a big match player were justifiably questioned by a wide range of authorities. He once had a 6-7 record in the finals of Grand Slam events, but now he has lifted that number to 11-8.
The top seeded Djokovic overcame No. 2 seed Andy Murray 6-1, 7-5, 7-6 (3) in the final beneath the lights in Rod Laver Stadium, moving to 22-9 in his career series with the British warrior, defeating his esteemed rival for the fourth time in an Australian Open final. Since Murray eclipsed Djokovic in the Wimbledon final of 2013, Djokovic has struck down his adversary in eleven of their last twelve appointments. He is a fundamentally better player than Murray, but the fact remains that their skirmishes are often spirited, hard fought, and absorbing.
This one belonged in that category, even if Djokovic was the pace setter at the start, threatening to turn the battle into a one-sided confrontation, looking fully capable of pulling away inexorably. The highly charged Serbian was raring to go at the outset of this contest, stamping his authority on the proceedings quickly and irrefutably, leaving Murray at a loss to find his range and reveal his talent. In the opening game of the match, Murray had a brief moment when he appeared to have an opening to make inroads. Djokovic was serving at break point down, but he took a forehand down the line from Murray and drove a potent two-hander into the clear crosscourt, connecting for a clean winner.
Djokovic held on for 1-0, and then released his most devastatingly potent brand of tennis. He broke Murray for 2-0 at 15 on a double fault, and then moved to 3-0, commencing that game with a backhand down the line drop shot winner, followed by a superb service winner at 175 kilometers down the T. An inside out forehand winner allowed Djokovic to reach 40-0, and he held at love with an unanswerable backhand down the line. Djokovic stormed to 4-0, breaking at 15 with unrelenting backcourt variety and aggression, holding at 15 for 5-0, serving an ace for 40-0, sealing that game with a backhand down the line winner. From deuce in the opening game, Djokovic had won 18 of 21 points to break the set wide open. Djokovic had swept the last nine games against Murray a year ago in the final, and so he had won no fewer than 14 games in a row on this court against a top of the line opponent.
Murray knew full well that this set was over, but he made certain to hold in the sixth game, and then made Djokovic work hard to serve it out at 5-1. After a couple of deuces, Djokovic prevailed on his third set point, wrapping it up in 30 minutes 6-1. His return of serve was breathtaking, and Murray won only 45% of his first serve points. The world’s best player was off and running, up a set, marching toward the title, and building on his reputation as the best front runner in the sport. No one in the Open Era among the men has a better record after taking opening sets than Djokovic, and so Murray fully understood that he had his work cut out for him.
The British competitor raised his intensity early in the second set, and the match took on a different color. At 1-1, Murray survived a six deuce game, saving four break points, wiping away the last one with an ace. Another ace down the T gave a resolute Murray the hold for 2-1. He served another admirable game to hold for 3-2, producing an ace on the penultimate point of that game, allowing Djokovic only one point. Djokovic held on for 3-3, but that required an extraordinary effort. On his third game point, he stayed on serve with a hard earned hold. And then Djokovic broke for 4-3 at 30 with guile, precision and magnificent ball control.
Murray had not played a bad game, but found himself down a set and a break, in danger of imminent obliteration. But he broke right back with stern resistance. At 30-30, Murray’s drop volley elicited a netted forehand passing shot from the Serbian, and then the British stalwart found the line in the corner with an outright winner off the backhand. It was 4-4. The temperature of the set was rising on both sides of the net as both players fought valiantly to seize control of it. Neither man was ceding any ground as the battle intensified.
Murray saved a pair of break points in the ninth game with a service winner and a barrage of big hitting off the backhand that eventually compromised Djokovic. After four deuces, Murray advanced to 5-4 as a now besieged Djokovic made an unforced error off the backhand. Serving to stay in the set, Djokovic trailed 15-30, but Murray erred off the forehand without really being provoked. Then Murray pressed, netting a backhand born of anxiety. Djokovic surged forward to draw an errant backhand passing shot from Murray, and it was 5-5.
Both players were well aware that Murray needed this set more than Djokovic. He was not going to halt his towering adversary from two sets down. It was imperative that he make his move now and wrestle the second set away from Djokovic. With that clearly on his mind, Murray took a commanding 40-0 lead at 5-5; in the worst case scenario, or so it seemed, he would have his chance in a tie-break. But Djokovic was not obliging. Murray missed narrowly on a crosscourt forehand before Djokovic laced a forehand crosscourt winner. Djokovic won a lengthy exchange from the backcourt with an imperturbable display of steadiness.
That made it deuce. The Serbian made good on a backhand passing shot winner to earn a break point, and then outperformed Murray in another baseline duel as the No. 2 seed missed a backhand crosscourt wide. Djokovic had put his nose to the grindstone and collected five crucial points in a row to move ahead 6-5. Serving for the set, knowing a two set lead would put him in awfully good stead, realizing the match was essentially on his racket, Djokovic tightened up after leading 30-15, serving consecutive double faults to drift break point down. But Djokovic got his first serve in, sent a backhand crosscourt that left Murray off balance and unable to respond, and the heavy favorite was back to deuce. Murray missed another two-hander to give Djokovic set point. The Serbian exploited that opportunity with a solid point, luring Murray into a forehand down the line mistake.
Djokovic was right where he wanted to be after a brutally demanding 80 minute set. He was up two sets, and Murray seemed understandably fatigued after fighting through five sets across four hours two nights earlier in the semifinals against Milos Raonic. Djokovic had celebrated a milestone moment in his semifinal the previous evening against Roger Federer, taking the lead for the first time ever (at 23-22) in their compelling career series with a sublime performance. The extra day off seemingly did him good.
The Serbian broke Murray for 1-0 in the third set with a backhand passing shot winner landing smack on the sideline. Murray’s fatigue was evident in that game as he netted a routine overhead to fall behind 15-40. Djokovic could almost taste the title now as he held briskly at love for 2-0, serving-and-volleying at 40-0 to provoke an errant return. Murray was behind 15-30 at 0-2, but he served his way skillfully out of that corner to avoid falling two breaks down.
Nonetheless, Djokovic gamely saved a break point on his way to 3-1. He applied the pressure again in the following game. Murray served at 30-30, but a chipped backhand passing shot from Djokovic found the net tape. A sprightlier Murray retreated with more agility this time to put away an overhead forcefully. Murray was not the aggressor as Djokovic settled into a largely defensive mode. The underdog was rewarded for his determination to succeed with assertive tactics, and he put away another overhead to reach break point in the sixth game before driving a two-hander crosscourt to coax a surprising error from Djokovic, who had fallen into excessive passivity at this stage.
And so it was 3-3. Murray held on confidently for 4-3, and now both players were protecting their serves sedulously. Djokovic made it 4-4 despite double faulting for 30-30. Yet Murray remained in an attacking frame of mind, holding at 15 for 5-4 with an ace and an excellent second serve that was too much for even Djokovic to handle.
Surely Djokovic wanted no part of playing a fourth set. Serving to stay in the third set at 4-5, he was thoroughly disciplined, holding at 15. Unswayed, Murray held at 15 for 6-5 with a 208 kilometer service winner to the backhand. Yet Djokovic retaliated by holding at 30 for 6-6 after opening up a 40-0 lead with an ace.. A tie-break would decide the outcome of the third set, and either Djokovic would move safely across the finish line or Murray would remain alive and move on to a fourth set.
Murray commenced the tie-break in the worst possible fashion—with a double fault on the first point. Djokovic proceeded to 2-0 with an ace down that caught the edge of the line. He won a challenge to get the original out call reversed. Murray then netted a forehand down the line. It was 3-0 for Djokovic. Murray won the next point, but then double faulted again for 1-4. Djokovic released an impeccable first serve down the T that Murray hardly touched, and the top seed led 5-1.When Murray took a risk with a backhand down the line and sent it wide, Djokovic was up 6-1, and surrounded by match points.
Murray managed to take the next two points, but Djokovic ended the tournament in style with an ace down the T, his seventh of the evening. His 6-1, 7-5 7-6 (3) triumph was not among his most inspirational displays. To be sure, the first set was a beauty but thereafter he seemed content to use his defense to wear Murray out. Murray played first rate tennis over the last two sets but it was insufficient to prevent the game’s greatest player from gaining another major triumph. Two statistical barometers stand out: Djokovic won 53% of his second serve points in the match while Murray was at only 35%. And Djokovic had only 41 total unforced error, 24 fewer than the determined Murray.
Djokovic was showered with support from a large contingent of Serbian fans in the stands. Atmospherically, this match contrasted sharply with most contests played by the man who dominates tennis these days. Murray had his loyal followers in the audience as well, but atypically Djokovic was cheered liberally by many of the fans. That was heartwarming for him.
Now he will pursue more historical milestones in the months ahead. If Djokovic captures the crown at Roland Garros in June to round out his career resume, he would become the first man to sweep four majors in a row since Laver won his second Grand Slam back in 1969. Winning the French Open would give Djokovic a career Grand Slam. From there, he will strive to win Wimbledon for the third consecutive season and the fourth time in all, and then move on to the U.S. Open to defend his title there.
The view here is that Djokovic will win at least two of the three remaining majors this year, including a long awaited breakthrough in Paris, where he has been in the finals three times. Be that as it may, he is riding high now, reaching 17 consecutive tournament finals since the Australian Open of 2015. It is quite clearly his world, and we are fortunate to be witnessing the regal way he is ruling it.