Djokovic slaps Murray back down
World No 1’s run of 28 wins ended by his old nemesis ‘Dream start’ to 2017 for Serb as Melbourne looms
Andy Murray’s sequence of 28 consecutive victories was ended by Novak Djokovic in the most heartbreaking of circumstances last night.
Playing the final of the Qatar Open in Doha, Murray fought back from three match points in the second set to take the match into a decider.
In the end, though, his old nemesis proved too strong. The result will reshape expectations going into the Australian Open, which starts a week tomorrow. Murray seemed to have broken Djokovic’s psychological hold over him when he won their most recent meeting in the final of the ATP World Tour Finals in November. But Djokovic – who survived five match points against Fernando Verdasco on Friday – was hugely impressive yesterday.
In a flashback to the world order that has applied for most of the last five years, he outhit Murray from the back of the court as he closed out a 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 win in 2hr 54min.
“Definitely one of the best ways to start a year,” said Djokovic. “When Andy turned it around I thought it ‘I hope this is not payback time’ [for the Verdasco comeback]. All the way to the last shot, you never know with Andy.
“It’s no strange occurrence for both of us to play three sets for three hours. It’s a very physical battle. We’re both going to need a bit of time to recover and get ready for Melbourne.”
The match sparked some debate on social media over Djokovic’s body language, which once again suggested he was physically struggling for much of the match. This has been a point of controversy since the 2015 Australian Open final, after which Murray said he had been distracted by the Serb’s apparent attack of cramp in the third set.
Any signs from Djokovic yesterday were much more subtle, but his critics detected plenty of grimacing and some of the rubber-limbed stumbling after missed shots that we have seen before.
These are simply Djokovic tropes, however, which hardly constitute gamesmanship on their own. Murray was conspicuously upbeat as he shook hands at the net with a broad smile and warm congratulations. On the upside, he does at least know he will remain world No 1 going into Australia.
“It was a high standard of tennis and a great way to start the year,” said Murray. “I’ve had a fantastic week here and I’ve really enjoyed it.” caught at slip in that World T20 final – by his own admission he goes through “feast or famine” series, and this was the latter – Root and Jos Buttler were left with too much to do.
A change of personnel is inevitable if Root does not arrive in time for next Sunday’s match in Pune at the new out-of-town Indian Premier League stadium, which opens the door for either Sam Billings or Jonny Bairstow.
It is absurd that Bairstow has never been given a run in the one-day side. He has been allotted 18 innings over five years, most often at No 6, which is too low to bolster a batting average (his stands at 30).
Even if he is not keeping wicket, because Buttler is, Bairstow is too good a batsman – red-hot between
The early stages were encouraging for Murray, who held a break point in the third game but failed to return a strong first serve. Djokovic was not to give him another chance for some time, maintaining an uncannily high firstserve percentage and winning 24 out of 37 baseline rallies in that opening set.
The second set was a roller coaster. Djokovic made the running through the early stages and broke in peculiar circumstances in the seventh game.
Having fallen and hit his head while attempting a desperate retrieval shot, he then profited from Murray’s resulting loss of concentration as the world wickets and at putting pressure on opponents – not to be in England’s Champions Trophy side. And if England can contrive greenish pitches in June and play one spinner – whether the attacking Adil Rashid or the defensive Moeen Ali – a vacancy arises for Bairstow at five.
There might even be a place for Billings, too, if he makes the most of Root’s absence, and does so well at three that he is given the chance to open and prove himself more consistent than Hales. The Test side rapidly moved on without Hales when he declined to tour Bangladesh, as Haseeb Hameed and Keaton Jennings scooted past him in India. Missing the one-day series in Bangladesh could turn out to have similar consequences for Hales’s ODI place.
This three-match series offers a great opportunity for all of England’s top-order batsmen because one-day pitches in India are even more favourable for batting than elsewhere: par totals above 300 can be expected. As in the Tests however, India have better spinners and are therefore favourites in Virat Kohli’s first ODI series as captain in all three formats. No 1 tossed in a double-fault. That made it 4-3 and moments later Djokovic found himself serving for the match at 5-4. He had his chances, holding three match points during the game, but he could not quite find a way through Murray’s seamless defences.
There were also a couple of freebies thrown in: a double-fault at 30-30 and a disappointing missed slice. That was enough for Murray to pounce, striking his most telling shot of the match – a huge inside-out forehand winner – to claim his first break.
The winning streak may be over for Murray, but another sequence continues. As befitting his status as one of the greatest returners in history, he has not gone through a match without breaking serve since he lost to Roger Federer in Cincinnati in the summer of 2015, no fewer than 112 matches ago.
Having levelled the set at 5-5, Murray promptly broke again to level the match at one set apiece. An opening hold in the decider meant that he had reeled FORMER ENGLAND PLAYER
Alastair Cook has earnt the right to choose when and if he wants to step down as England captain. The scrutiny that he has been under over the last few years has been incredible. He will have given it a lot of thought, and he will be the one who decides, no one else. If he goes, there is only one successor – Joe Root. There are a lot of people saying that he should be captain, and rightly so. For the past year or so he’s been a fantastic player. But do we want to shine such a bright light on him yet?
BBC CRICKET CORRESPONDENT off five consecutive games, just when the situation had seemed most bleak.
One of them was concluded by a point penalty against Djokovic, when he smashed his racket into the court.
It was his second code-of-conduct offence after he had banged a ball away in anger during the first set.
The third set hinged on Djokovic’s feisty defence in the sixth game, in which he faced another break point and repelled it with a classic combination: big first serve, strong forehand, winning overhead. Having scrambled to stay in touch for the previous halfhour, he now saw his chance, while Murray was demoralised by the nearmiss and mislaid his first serve. A break to love ensued, setting Djokovic up for this morale-boosting victory.
“It means a lot,” said Djokovic, “because the last three months of 2016 I haven’t felt that confident on the court and I didn’t play so consistent. To start off the year with a win over the No 1 and the biggest rival, it’s a dream start.”
The question persists: are Roy, Hales, Root and Morgan reliable enough to win a one-day trophy? ‘All the way to the last shot, you never know with Andy – we’re both going to need a bit of time to recover’
in Australia, after which it would be a good time for Joe Root to take over. I think Cook should stay on to do the two tough series we’ve got coming up – at home to South Africa and away in Australia – then pass it on. In the meantime I want Root to enjoy his cricket and the freedom of batting without the responsibility of captaincy.
Hunting down his prey: Novak Djokovic receives the distinctive trophy after a 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 victory over his old rival Andy Murray in the Qatar Open in Doha yesterday