The great Roy Emerson must have smiled widely when No. 1 Novak Djokovic put on another defense-to-offense clinic to wear down Andy Murray 6-7(2) 7-6(3) 6-3 6-2 to win his third consecutive Australian Open men’s singles title on Sunday night.
The Serbian became the first man since Emerson won five straight titles from 1963-67 to pull off a hat-trick at the tournament, and the 25-year-old is the first man in the Open Era (1968-present) to do so.
In winning the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup for a fourth time, Djokovic earned his sixth Grand Slam title, and the world No.1 joins Andre Agassi and Roger Federer as a four-time Melbourne champion.
“What more motivation you need than from this trophy?” Djokovic asked.
“Just seeing it and reading the names of the winners in last 50, 100 years, it's incredible. To be also mentioned in the history aspect, and winning three in a row, it's a huge achievement. I'm always motivated in every match that I play, but of course Grand Slam finals are always bringing something new, something special to every player, and that's where you want to perform your best.”
Just as Emerson was in his reign, Djokovic was simply relentless. The top seed stamped his mark on the tournament from start to finish, daring every opponent to try and run with him, hit through him and be willing to play past five hours if necessary.
While Murray showed in defeating Djokovic in the 2012 US Open final that he is capable of doing it on occasion, he could not sustain the Serbian’s level at Rod Laver Arena on Sunday night, which has become Djokovic’s home away from home.
He has won 21 consecutive matches in Melbourne, some of them simple and easy, other hard-fought but predictable, and some absolute classics when he had to pull out all stops against top-shelf opponents.
Sunday night in Melbourne was one of those affairs, as he and his childhood rival Murray threw big blows at each for three hours and 40 minutes. They went end to end, engaged rapid-fire crosscourt rallies, tossed in sharp slices and bullets down the line. They mixed it up to try and throw their foe off, or cranked it up in intimidating fashion.
Djokovic held four break points in the fifth game of the first set, but couldn't convert as he committed unforced groundstroke errors on all of them.
He held another at 3-3, but Murray put away a forehand volley. Djokovic’s inability to convert any of those seemed to irk him more and more as the set grew longer, and he was also slipping on occasion – possibly because his shoes weren’t gripping the court as they should have – and he began to yell in frustration towards the supporters in his players’ box.
Murray looked a little winded at times after long rallies, but he stayed strong for the most part, gamely running down big blasts and powering up his groundstrokes when called upon.
While Djokovic continued to talk to himself, Murray contested a solid tiebreaker, winning it when Djokovic committed a forehand error.
Djokovic almost dug himself a big hole in the opening game of the second set, but came back from 0-40 down to hold. From there on, he seemed much more comfortable as he began to hold easily, moved further inside the baseline and waited patiently for his opportunities.
He made the rallies as physical as he could, and while he grew frustrated at times with his inability to do much with Murray’s first serve, he punched himself into a tiebreaker.
Contending with a bleeding big right toe that he would be treated after the tiebreaker ended, Murray fell apart at the end of the second set. At two points apiece in the tiebreaker, Murray served a critical double fault when he stopped between serves to remove a feather that had blown onto the court, breaking his focus.
Sensing an opportunity, Djokovic pressed hard, and two Murray backhand errors handed the Serb the set.
Djokovic then began a very deliberate and steady push to the title. He cleaned up his game in the third set, cut down on his unforced errors and added some more pop to his groundstrokes.
“I tried to be more aggressive, so I went for my shots, especially in the third and fourth – I came to the net quite often,” said Djokovic, who won 35 of 41 points at the net.
“I was quite successful in that percentage, so it worked well for me. I needed to be the one who dictates the play.”
Murray was having trouble starting and stopping, and with his movement somewhat compromised, Djokovic pounced. The top seed broke the Scot to 5-3 when Murray dumped a forehand into the net, and then easily held to win the set 6-3.
Sensing victory, Djokovic played even more freely in the fourth set, and he broke Murray to 2-1 after long rally where his foe butchered an inside-out backhand into the net.
With Murray struggling with what appeared to be a left buttock injury and feeling the effects of his four-hour five-set semifinal victory over Roger Federer on Friday night, Djokovic continued to torture the Scot with suffocating defense and began to move Murray as much as he could up and back the court. Djokovic broke Murray again to 4-1 when he caressed a beautiful drop shot, and then saw the world No.3 double fault.
The Serbian dropped first two points of the final game, but he then ran Murray side to side until his legs gave. The contest ended on a Murray backhand long, his 46th unforced error of the match.
“When you play one of your biggest rivals and somebody that is in the top form in finals of a Grand Slam, there is a lot to play for,” said Djokovic, who now owns an 11-7 head-to-head record against Murray.
“I think it went two hours and 20 minutes, the first two sets. I think that says enough about the intensity of the match. I kind of expected that. I knew that it's going to be physically very demanding, a lot of long rallies, so I needed to hang in there. I've done that.”
Murray’s defeat ended his quest to become the first man to back up their maiden Grand Slam title with a second at the very next opportunity, and he has now been runner-up at the Australian Open in three of the last four years, losing to Federer in 2010 and Djokovic 12 months later.