Djokovic Still King Down Under

By Tim Giattina

Andy Murray stopped bouncing the ball, interrupted his service routine, moved a floating feather out of his line-of-sight and returned to the baseline for his second serve. He missed his second serve and gift-wrapped Novak Djokovic the critical mini-break, and just as the feather was removed from the court, so was Murray’s momentum.

Murray never recovered and Djokovic went on to win the second set tiebreaker 7-3. Seizing the momentum, the Serb upped his level and – helped by fatigue and nagging minor injuries to Murray – routinely dismantled Murray in the third and fourth sets en route to his third consecutive Australian Open title.

Can anyone stop Novak Djokovic in Melbourne?

If he plays like he did in the semis and in the third and fourth set of the finals, the answer is no. Stanley Wawrinka was the closest this year in the round of 16 – with both competitors producing the match of the tournament – but other than that, Djokovic largely cruised over the last two weeks.

Sunday night’s final produced some exciting tennis and tense moments over the first two sets, but even much of that play wasn’t the cleanest. Djokovic made numerous errors – tallying 25 unforced errors in the first set – and Murray seemed to be in control.

Under the tutelage of former world No. 1, Ivan Lendl, Murray has transformed his game. The Scot now plays less defense – a style which, granted, he is very effective using – and is more committed to aggressively dictating points.

Additionally, Lendl’s steely resolve aided Murray’s mental toughness, at one time a liability in the big moments. For two sets Sunday night this was the case. In addition to playing sound defense, Murray stepped inside the baseline to challenge Djokovic’s second serves and successfully pressed the issue from the baseline. This combination of offense and defense had Djokovic out of sorts and he was visibly uncomfortable.

However, like Djokovic, who had squandered five break points in the first set, Murray missed opportunities early in the second set to really put a stranglehold on the match.

It wasn’t always pretty, but Djokovic continued to hold and hang around.

Toward the end of the second set, the Serb started settling in and finding his rhythm. He started to better read Murray’s serve and began to punish his groundstrokes from both sides.This spelled trouble for Murray.

Djokovic smelled blood and shifted into another gear following the second set tiebreak. Murray, as mentioned, suffering from the fatigue and the nagging wear and tear that comes along with a grand slam, was not able to match Djoker’s rise in intensity. The fourth set was a mere formality as it wasn’t a matter of if, but when.

For tennis fans, the rest of the year has the potential to produce some unbelievably exciting tennis.

The immediate question we’ll know more about in the coming weeks, and possibly months, is the status of Rafael Nadal. Depending on how well his knees hold up, I think with a few clay court events under his belt Rafa and Djokovic will be the wagering favorites heading into Roland Garros.

Can one of the talented guys outside of the Big Four break through and make their mark? Tsonga, Del Potro, Ferrer, and Berdych have the ability to beat anyone in the world, but they haven’t produced the results as consistently as the Big Four.

Will any of those in the new crop of youngsters make noise?  After losing easily to Federer in Melbourne, both Tomic and Raonic realize they have a ways to go before consistently challenging the top players of the sport.

Will Roger Federer keep his ridiculous streak of 35 consecutive grand slam quarterfinals alive? I think he will. You always have to like the Swiss maestro’s chances at the All England Club.

At this point late in his career, his formula of focusing his game around the four slams continues to yield good results, even if he no longer takes home two or three majors a year.

I’m hoping for a healthy Nadal and a Big Four semis at Roland Garros or Wimbledon.

There are storylines and questions aplenty heading into the season, but there remains one fact no one can question: Novak Djokovic is king atop the tennis world.

Editor’s Note: Tim Giattina is a lawyer in Little Rock, originally from Birmingham, Ala., and an alumnus of Notre Dame where he was a scholarship member of the tennis team.

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