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

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - SPORT - TEN­NIS COR­RE­SPON­DENT

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?

TV PRE­SEN­TER

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

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