x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Novak Djokovic found wanting for once

The world No 1 has made remarkable comebacks in crucial tennis matches in the recent past. But Andy Murray was too good for him in the Dubai semi-finals.

Novak Djokovic, the top-ranked tennis player in the world and a three-time defending champion here, was favourite to beat Andy Murray in Friday night’s semi-finals. The Serb, though, lost in straight sets.
Novak Djokovic, the top-ranked tennis player in the world and a three-time defending champion here, was favourite to beat Andy Murray in Friday night’s semi-finals. The Serb, though, lost in straight sets.

Viewing that second serve, you might have wanted to grimace or groan or, if melodramatic, cry.

The thing wobbled over the net and fluttered out long and croaked for a double fault, the tennis ball itself seeming embarrassed. It almost apologised as it bounded off.

The trembling quail of a serve made it love-30 as Andy Murray served for the match at 5-3, and it foretold the complete withering of the 6-2, 5-2 lead he once held over the No 1 titan Novak Djokovic.

Soon it went to 6-2, 5-5 and uh oh, and now did come a moment that might mean something through the 2012 season. For a great tennis era to become even better, it would help if Murray can become even better. So mark it down that last evening in the semi-finals of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships at Aviation Club, Murray stared at one of the most foreboding things the game can offer nowadays, and then he stared it down.

The sight was Djokovic charging back from cornered, and the result was Murray winning eight of the last 10 points.

"That's the most important thing," the No 4 player said. "When you do get nervous and blow a chance, you stay strong and win the match. I did that."

At the moment just after that big blush of a second serve, the set had gone back to on-serve after an early Murray break, and the excellent crowd had gone riled with Djokovic's encouragement. Sometimes it seems Djokovic adores the inconvenience just so he can upstage himself. Asked if he thought himself about to come back, he said, "Yeah, I thought so."

Yeah, I thought so. Why wouldn't he? He trailed Murray two sets to one in the Australian Open semi-finals and won that. He trailed Rafael Nadal 4-2 in the fifth set of the Australian Open final and won that. The ample mind of Roger Federer, so stuffed with gaudy memories, has had to find a place to stash two US Open semi-finals in which Djokovic warded off two match points each, one with the service return of the new century.

Even here, in the heat of a taut second-set tie-breaker with countryman Janko Tipsarevic in the quarter-finals, Djokovic dug out some otherworldly stuff.

And even the Djokovic-Murray history, one with only three matches last year because they typically occupied opposite sides of draws, had a goblin lodged in it, all ready to haunt Murray.

That came last May in Rome, when Djokovic brought his 35-0 season record to the semi-finals and won the first set 6-1 before Murray won the second 6-3 and served for the match at 5-4 in the third. He committed two double faults in that game and soon saw Djokovic unearth his finest stuff at the finest moment in a 7-2 tie-breaker that led to a Murray defeat but maybe a Murray landmark.

Both there and in Australia, Murray said: "I think I made it incredibly hard for him. I fought for every single point and made it really, really tough. I think tonight in the second set he started going for more and making mistakes because of that, because it's tough to always grind out matches. I think that was the difference."

True, Djokovic's precision teetered, and his shots began spraying especially in the listless middle swath of the match. But he reappeared, yet Murray did not disappear. "I managed to hang in at the end," Murray said. He pretty much pretended 5-2 had not happened in holding serve at 15, then he stayed solid in the final game while Djokovic made some "really unforced errors" - Djokovic's words - which are worse than everyday unforced errors and warrant a separate statistic of Really Unforced Errors (RUE).

Seeing as how an important aspect of sport is forgetting, Murray had forgotten well. He's already typically a good closer, so it adds still more if he remains a good forgetter. Last evening he forgot even that one croak of a second serve. "I think it's big for me that after Australia this year" - where Djokovic won 7-5 in the fifth - "I've come back and had a win like tonight," Murray said. "Hopefully that will set me up for the rest of the year. Like I said, confidence in tennis and almost any individual sport is so important.

"A win like tonight will do that no harm; therefore, mentally I'm sure I'll be stronger."

That hints at an excellent final for Dubai and a promising season for the game.

cculpepper@thenational.ae