Monday, January 31, 2011

Agony and Ecstasy

Novak Djokovic was tremendous on Sunday night. But Andy Murray was awful, and so was the highly anticipated men's final.

After a masterful performance in Melbourne -- one that featured straight-set wins over Tomas Berdych, Roger Federer, and Andy Murray -- we can now officially say that not only is Novak Djokovic (finally!) back to being the player he was at the end of the 2007 and in the beginning of 2008, when he won his maiden Grand Slam title, we can also so that he is most definitely and assertively better than he was before.

Djokovic has been riding the roller coaster for three full years now, and only now is he again displaying a level of consistency and maturity to match his unyielding athleticism. Over these last three years it has been painful at times to watch Djokovic, knowing full well that he had the game to beat the best, yet also knowing full well that he seemed destined to find a way to fall short, to sabotage his best intentions with a heat-related malady, or an uninspired performance when he needed precisely the opposite.

But a major growth spurt has occurred over the last six months, not just in the game of the wildly talented acrobatic Serbian, but probably more so in the spirit.

Perhaps it was the way he was received in New York, when he vanquished Federer in the semis of the 2010 U.S. Open and once again was the only player in the draw who could truly push Nadal in a way that forced him to bring out an extra gear.

Perhaps it was the camaraderie and the infectious joy of his merry band of Serbian brothers as they captured the Davis Cup from France in Belgrade, manifesting itself in his play.

In reality, it was probably all of the above, and a bit more. The 23-year-old has come a long way since his irreverent late teens and early 20's, when it was him and his family against the world. He had a serious chip on his shoulder in those days, and many of us feared that he'd never reach the same level of all-court dominance without that chip.

But Sunday, against a befuddled Andy Murray, he did all that and more.

Djokovic, who has long possessed one of the most sublime court presences in the sport, was passionate from the first ball Sunday evening until long after he threw his shirt and shoes into the crowd for souvenirs. And when he needed to prove his superiority, he answered the bell by unleashing his heat-seeking forehand or a screaming corner-bound first serve.

It was an uplifting display on all fronts for Djokovic, and with it I do believe he's officially announced himself as a very real threat to claim more Grand Slam crowns and to ascend to No. 1 in the ATP rankings.

For Murray, the prospects appear to be much dimmer. It's not that the Scot has failed in all three of his Grand Slam finals -- it's the way that he has failed. Take nothing away from Djokovic but Murray's performance was shrouded in a black cloud of self doubt, and colored with a morose anxiety-ridden paste.

With the body language of a zombie, Murray moped around between points with the look of a man who'd already been beaten for most of the match. It was so bad that it was hard to focus on just how divine Djokovic was playing, because you could tell that most of his brilliance was completely unnecessary. The Serb had brought all his weapons to a fight in which Murray had brought none.

I'd like to defend Murray here, I really would. Like all true tennis fans, I wanted this Murray-Djokovic final to be a showcase of the talents of both men. The limber and clinical Djokovic, and the cat-and-mouse counter puncher Murray. Sadly, Murray was weighed down by something inexplicably heavy and grey. While Djokovic was at full potential, Murray was somewhere less than half.

There's no way to sugarcoat it, and I do believe that the widely chastised British Press is well within its rights to lambaste Murray.

His was a truly embarrassing performance, given the occasion, given the amount of ability he possesses, and his doleful, borderline psychotic behavior cast a pall over what should have been a joyous match, and a massive coming-out party for Djokovic.

I have long been a Murray supporter, and I thought -- all the way up until the night of the final -- that he was a shoe-in to break the British curse. Moreover, I felt that he deserved to be the guy to do it, because I felt that he was a fighter, and because I liked his unique brand of tennis and the way he seemed to relish the antagonistic elements of tennis warfare.

But having seen his worst last night, I've come to the realization that I'd rather not see this type of performance again in a Grand Slam final.

If this is what we get to replace Federer and Nadal, tennis fans should be concerned.

To his credit, Djokovic was still able to shine. But Murray brought this final way way down. It was hard to watch.

I was thrilled for Djokovic, but I was glad it was over as well.


  1. yes, what a let down.

  2. The thing is that we all know how good Andy can be. He goes mental in these finals. I don't know that I've ever seen him play that bad. The energy between Muzz and his team was so bad. I don't blame his team, but I think Muzz needs to find somebody that works for him in there.

    Hey -- a GS final is obviously a stellar result, but in terms of what the actual final offered tennis-wise, this was perhaps the worst performance I've ever seen.

    Sure, Fed won 4 games against Nadal in a French Open final, but somehow I don't think that was nearly as bad as what we witnessed on Saturday.

    It just seemed like a man was playing a boy. Murray needs to step up and be the man, but as I said, I can do without him in the next few Slam finals.

    Still, I hope he proves me wrong...

  3. In my opinion, the mental side of tennis plays a much larger role in a Grand Slam final. I'm sure Allen Fox would have some insights on that!

    I recall hearing Justine Henin say that she had trouble managing her nerves (at the AO). Seems odd that someone who's won so many GS's still has trouble with nerves. Hope Andy can succeed at Wimbledon.

  4. Great post here on this strange final. All credit goes to Djokovic for being "the man" the entire two weeks. But for a final that had many thinking this could be Murray's best chance yet, it indeed was a letdown. He may have been fighting to get back into the match, but it didn't look that way for most of it. But, I will say that even though the media may feel entitled to ripping apart Murray, they "built" Murray up for so many years, so they also kind of got a bit of comeuppance here.

    In any event, I hope Murray bounces back. And soon.

  5. I really like Murray's game. But his demeanor on the court, as you so aptly described, was atrocious. His box should have been yelling the whole time. They should go to a baseball game or they should know from football(soccer) matches. In tennis you may not be able to yell during the points but in between you can help out your player.
    I think Djokovic has tremendously improved. He kept saying that he had to get some things straightened in his mind between professional and personal life. The thing is, is that he still has allergies, he still has heat problems. I don't think they magically went away. It was not as hot down under. That is not to diminish his inspired play. I just don't like the media (not you) making quick decisions: Roger is out, Nadal won't last, Andy is terrible, Novak is a god. (some of that was exaggerating-ha) You get my drift. There is rarely a wait and see attitude.

  6. Sunny, you're right, I think all four will be around for quite some time, and there is no reason to usher Rafa and Roger out just yet at the top. But Novak is making a very compelling argument for himself as a more legitimate contender than he ever was. That's a good thing for the game, and I hope Murray can do the same for himself at some point.

    I've finally started to feel guilty about beating Murray up a bit, but I actually feel that it was necessary. People are shredding him for two reasons: 1) it's the story and 2) we think he's so much better than he showed on Sunday.

    I don't think there is a tennis fan on the planet who didn't wish they got more from Murray on Sunday. It was a Grand Slam final. The chance of a lifetime. You have to stay positive at all costs. Keep believing.

    Murray got to a point where he just refused to believe. Telling your box to shut up when they are trying to rally you is just plain strange. Sometimes strange works. On Sunday it did not.


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