Sunday, January 30, 2011

Of Murray's Tribulations and Djokovic's Joy

[Also posted at: http://www.criticaltwenties.in/sport/of-murrays-tribulations-and-djokovics-joy]

Every time Andy Murray enters a Grand Slam tournament, the expectations are immense. These, of course, are only partly his fault. Murray has never been keen to be seen as an icon of his country, yet ‘Britain’s Number One’, they croon, an irrelevant statistic uttered with an air of superiority that couldn’t have been more misplaced – as if a Briton has an inherent right to hold a Grand Slam title. The country hasn’t had a men’s singles Grand Slam champion since Fred Perry won the U.S. Open in 1936, making the utterance especially inappropriate.

Yet, in Murray, more so than it did with Tim Henman, Britain has a tennis player blessed with skills that are certainly worthy of a Grand Slam victory, making the expectations that much starker. Whether this weighs heavily on Murray’s shoulders and represents the cause for his frailties in the biggest of stages, we may never know. Regardless, it can serve as little excuse for his capitulations in the three Grand Slam finals that he has competed in. The latest, a 4-6, 2-6, 3-6 trouncing at the hands of Novak Djokovic only aided in highlighting the depth of the Serbian’s talents and the infirmities that continue to haunt Murray’s game. Overcoming expectations is a vital step in achieving sporting greatness. In Murray’s case, though, it is perhaps his own lack of self-confidence rather than the burden vested upon him by 60 million people that he needs to address. He only needs to look at the women’s singles champion at the Australian Open this year – Kim Clijsters – who lost her first four Grand Slam finals before winning the U.S. Open in 2005. So, Murray’s dream is not unattainable and the good thing for him is that he has all the assets that make a Grand Slam champion.

Now, though, is not a time to harp on Murray’s failings and prospects, but to celebrate the supreme talents, scintillatingly showcased by Djokovic, over the course of the two weeks at Melbourne Park. Losing only a set through the course of the tournament – in the second round to Ivan Dodig – Djokovic most significantly cruised through the quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals, against Tomas Berdych, Roger Federer and Murray respectively, with consummate ease. The Serb, constantly behind the shadows of Federer and Rafael Nadal, in spite of his victory in Australia in 2008, has made staggering improvements to his game, which when exhibited as it has been in the last week makes for thrilling viewing.

Djokovic tends to excite in an unusual manner. He doesn’t have a booming serve with which he can serve aces at will, or ground-strokes with which he can readily kill, but he does boast a supreme ability to convert defence into attack, which by itself makes for an awe-inspiring spectacle. His innate sense of the geometry of a tennis court coupled with an astute on-court nous means that he can scamper and retrieve seemingly unreachable balls before finding angles of dazzling brilliance.

Each of his opponents in the last three rounds constituted a distinct threat. The big Czech, Tomas Berdych possesses easy power with which he often dismantles opponents in terrific fashion. Djokovic, though, on a relatively slow surface – the Australian Open is played on one of the slowest hard courts – was able to negate Berdych’s threat with a combination of excellent service-returns and neat use of all the perimeters of the court, taking the match 6-1, 7-6, 6-1.

With Rafael Nadal nursing an injury, ousted by David Ferrer in the quarter-finals, many felt that the Slam was Federer’s for the taking. Yet, the Swiss was outclassed by an imperious Djokovic, who unrelentingly attacked and exposed weaknesses in Federer’s backhand that even if always perceptible had never been so cruelly laid bare. Also apparent in the straight sets victory, was the extent of improvement that Djokovic’s serve has undergone – his ability to find accuracy on the big points was particularly noteworthy. But most astonishing was his athleticism. Very often after retrieving balls on his backhand side with his left foot sliding past the tramlines, he still managed to muster the racquet-head speed necessary to send the ball back with purpose. Even when it seemed like Federer was in the ascendancy, Djokovic was able to find the resilience to stay with the Swiss and ultimately hit strokes of resounding excellence.

In the final against Murray, right from the offing, Djokovic set out to attack – striking his ground-strokes with scintillating pace and depth – never once allowing Murray to settle into any rhythm. In the first four games, he was hitting the ball at an average of 20 kilometres faster than Murray, and at the same time finding sharper angles and greater depth. The crucial point though came on 15-30, when Djokovic serving for the first set at 5-4, played a rally that showcased the complete array of his most vital skill – an ability to convert defence into offense with ridiculous simplicity – he scurried to reach both corners of the baseline on numerous occasions before stroking a backhand past his hapless opponent with remarkable pace and alacrity. All through the match, he displayed elasticity in footwork that allowed him to defend even the most searching of Murray’s strokes, invariably culminating in an error from the Scot, an imposing winner or an irretrievable blow from the Serb.

In the second set after racing to a 5-0 lead, Djokovic, possibly showing the first hint of nerves, allowed Murray a little peep, losing two straight games before breaking again. The third set was slightly more topsy-turvy with both players exchanging breaks of serves, but ultimately Djokovic exerted his superiority. Leading 4-3, he broke Murray and went through some jittery moments on his serve before a Murray forehand crashed into the net to give him the championship.

Nine victorious sets of tennis in the final three rounds of the tournament, played against three of the top players in the circuit, means that Djokovic’s success couldn’t have been more deserved. His 2008 win at the Australian Open had already proved his Grand Slam credentials, but with Nadal and Federer dominating almost all Grand Slams since, few expected Djokovic to triumph here. And in doing so in a thoroughly convincing fashion, he has brought to light the prospect of a shattering of the duopoly at the top of men’s tennis.

2 comments:

Rahul Saha said...

Who is Britain's No.2?

Suhrith said...

I haven't a clue.