The last time Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic met at tour level – as opposed to the social level – was at the World Tour Finals in London, while the time before that was the final of the Shanghai Masters, in a terrific match that fell barely shy of being adjudged a classic. The time before that was the US Open final, a match that rearranged history as we know it, even if the raw tennis itself, addled and marred by hurricane-force winds, languished somewhere shy of perfection. Theirs’ is, we’re told often, the defining rivalry of the era. Tonight’s final, in the azure vault of Rod Laver Arena, was therefore anyone’s match.
It is, it must be said, not the most dynamic of rivalries at a point-by-point level. It is very often an example of what happens when an immovable object meets an immovable object. It is rare for a winner to be struck before every other possible option has been exhausted. Indeed, exhausted is the operative word. Shanghai essentially ended when Murray’s legs gave out. In New York the reverse occurred. It turns out even the sturdiest pins in the game will give way if you pound at them for long enough. So it proved tonight.
All the same, whether it was the absent gale or the fresh locale, the first set of tonight’s final featured plenty of short points. It kicked off with three quick winners. Mercifully, the rallying pace was more Shanghai than New York. Djokovic created more chances – an entire handful of break points – but in failing to take them he did little more than frustrate himself. This bore strange fruit in the tiebreak, which the world No.1 commenced with a double fault, and went downhill from there. Murray, solid, took it 7-2, his first set in an Australian Open final from three attempts.
The Scot maintained his momentum into the second set, and gained three indecisive break points early on, although he looked rather nonplussed, and handed them back. The tiebreak was still another eight games away, but it never felt as though it wouldn’t arrive. It did.
Then, in a moment that will live long in infamy, the match turned. A small seagull feather fluttered past Murray as he prepared to deliver a second serve. He paused, doubtless reflecting on the transience of all things and that we humans are, ultimately, but dust and shadow. Then he double faulted. Djokovic ran away with the breaker, levelling the match.
The feather was a tiny moment of beauty, but definitive contrast arrived when Murray called a medical timeout, so that his wrecked foot might be rebound and anointed (apparently with mustard). The foot was not attractive. Nor, it transpired, was it entirely functional. Murray looked decidedly hobbled as he returned to the court. Djokovic, ostensibly a good friend of the court, was justifiably less than sympathetic.
Games continued on serve until 3/4 on Murray’s serve, whereupon he collapsed to 0-40. Two break points were saved, but not a third. It ended (at 31) the longest sequence of holds to commence a Major final in history. If Djokovic was impressed he didn’t show it, and served out the set with ease.
The breaking commenced earlier in the third set, with the visibly struggling Scot losing his serve at 1-1, and again at 4-1. Djokovic came around to serve out the championship at 5-2. He was so confident that he began to rush the net behind double-fisted drive volleys, which didn’t work out well. A rather lucky and rare drop-smash righted things however, and he thereafter lost no more points, claiming his fourth Australian Open title when a last weary Murray backhand found the net. The final score was 6-7 (2) 7-6 (3) 6-3 6-2.
Novak Djokovic is now the only man in the Open Era to win three consecutive Australian Opens. Afterwards he was ecstatic (believe it or not), but unlike last year’s final and this year’s fourth round he opted not to shred his clothes. It hadn’t been that kind of match. Still, his smile was endless, and deserved.
Both players delivered appropriately warm speeches at the trophy presentation, taking special care to endorse Craig Tiley’s stewardship of the event, echoing the broader sentiments of the player-bases. Probed later about the feather that blew open the second set, Djokovic laughed, conceded that momentum had indeed shifted at that moment, but suggested that his opponent might have more to say on the matter.
In all, it was a decent final, even if it won’t go down as a great one. For sheer drama it probably needed a fifth set (plus a roof closure and a fireworks display). But this wasn’t to be, thanks to Djokovic’s sporadic but timely brilliance, Murray’s damaged and weary body, and – if we believe the British journalists – one rogue feather. It is Djokovic’s sixth Major title, and there is almost no chance it will be his last.