Losing to your greatest rival for the eighth match in succession might not be the most likely source of encouragement but as Andy Murray left the French Open here last night he could take plenty of positives from his semi-final defeat by Novak Djokovic.
While a 6-3 6-3 5-7 5-7 6-1 victory for Djokovic sent the Serb through to today’s final against Stan Wawrinka, Murray could take inspiration from the fact that he had gone as close as anyone to defeating the world No 1 in a Grand Slam or Masters Series tournament this year. Resuming at 3-3 in the fourth set after the match had been halted the previous evening, a fired-up Murray took the contest into a decider, only for Djokovic to respond in the fashion which has made him the game’s outstanding player.
The last fortnight has reinforced Murray’s position as the second best player of 2015 and will put him in good heart for the start of Wimbledon in three weeks’ time. He has finally put behind him the back problems that led to surgery at the end of 2013 and has rediscovered the form that brought him his Wimbledon and US Open titles.
Murray, who has never won as many matches at this stage of the season as he has this year, said: “I think my game is back close to where it needs to be to be winning Slams. Physically I’m back there again, and now with the grass-court season coming up, hopefully I can get myself an opportunity there and play much better going into the grass this year than I did last year.”
Djokovic, nevertheless, is likely to remain the greatest obstacle in Murray’s path, whatever the venue and whatever the surface. The Scot has not beaten him since the 2013 Wimbledon final and his subsequent run of losses to the Serb now includes defeats in the Australian, US and French Opens.
In the past Djokovic’s mental strength and powers of endurance were both suspect, but he has become the strong man of the sport. Yesterday it was his strength of character that saw him through, just when his pursuit of a place in history as a winner of the “career Grand Slam” seemed under threat.
The match had been halted the previous evening because of an approaching storm. Murray had made a spirited fightback after losing the first two sets, but knew there was no margin for error on the resumption: if the Scot started slowly Djokovic might be raising his arms in victory within 10 minutes.
In glorious sunshine and with the temperature a pleasant 21C, Murray got the crowd on his side immediately as he geed himself up and fist-pumped in celebration of winners. Djokovic, whose snarling demeanour is not always to the crowd’s taste, did not look happy, though the world No 1 did not lose a point in his first two service games.
When Djokovic served at 5-5 and 15-0 Murray won a stunning 32-shot rally with a fine drop shot, after which he milked the crowd’s applause. Murray’s pressure subsequently forced Djokovic into mistakes and the Scot broke before serving out to level the match at two sets apiece.
This was the 158th five-set match of Djokovic’s career in which he has won the first two sets. He has gone on to lose only once, to Jurgen Melzer in the quarter-finals here five years ago.
Murray’s chance probably came and went in the first two games of the decider. Djokovic struggled through his opening service game, in which Murray was left to regret not taking advantage of a second serve at deuce, and then broke to go 2-0 up. Taking his time to get the feel of the new balls, Murray went 0-40 down after hitting three relatively straightforward shots beyond the baseline. Two points later a forehand into the net gave Djokovic the crucial break.
Djokovic went 4-1 up and then broke again courtesy of four successive errors by Murray. The end was swift as Djokovic served out for victory after four hours and nine minutes with his first ace of the day. It was Murray’s first defeat on clay this year.
Amelie Mauresmo, Murray’s coach, said the Scot had put on a “great” performance. She said that “one bad game” at the start of the fifth set had been costly and added: “I said before the match that you don’t get many opportunities against Novak and you have to perform well in those moments.”Reuse content