James Lawton: Maybe Murray's Czech mate can help him join Grand Slam masters

 

One day Andy Murray may have to settle for less, accept that for all the gifts heaped upon him the vital one is still missing.

That day has not yet arrived and nor is it likely to for a year or so, but at 24 he surely knows the clock is running hard.

The sound of its ticking was thunderous when the world's best player, Novak Djokovic, blowing like an outclassed handicapper at one point, then producing shots worthy of the presence of the great Rod "Rocket" Laver, re-claimed the Australian Open semi-final from Murray as though dismissing some impertinent interloper.

Of course Murray is a whole lot more than that, as he showed when he also played tennis which brought a smile of pleasure to the face of the old master from Queensland, but even had he been given another four hours, 50 minutes – the length of yesterday's five-set epic – it is hard to believe he would have found that missing asset.

It is the one with which Djokovic has astounded tennis for more than a year now while sweeping away the No 1 ranking of Rafael Nadal with six victories in six finals, including Wimbledon and the US Open. We saw it in the ferocious – OK, mad – gleam that came to the Serb's eyes when he won back three break points in the fifth set, an expression which seemed to say, "You can do anything you like, Andy, however brilliant, however innovative, but you're not going to beat me."

You have to suspect the great Nadal will receive the same message somewhere in the decisive phase of Sunday's final. It is not so much a statement of overbearing talent but untouchable conviction.

Djokovic persuaded himself some time ago that there is no player on this planet who can consistently match his range of shots while under the hammer – or his ability to re-invent himself at regular intervals in the most strenuous competition.

The worry for Murray's new and apparently influential coach, Ivan Lendl, is that his charge did everything but deliver the coup de grace. It is something that you cannot teach. It is something of the blood that is not to be found even in the most superior coaching manual.

But then perhaps the great Czech champion, a winner of eight Grand Slam titles and several times hauntingly close to winning Wimbledon, will help uncover it somewhere between now and that moment when Murray is forced to abandon the search.

You have to give Lendl – a sternly impassive observer until a wintry smile crossed his face when Murray appeared to be striking out for victory in the deciding set – something of a chance because there were times when he did indeed seem like the author of a small miracle.

That, you have say, was a reasonable way of describing the improvement in Murray since he delivered his most feeble Grand Slam final performance in Melbourne last year. We saw a little more of that Murray in the first set, when he repeatedly failed to go on the front foot and Djokovic was allowed to dominate all the crucial points. But then he began to play, quite sublimely at times. Inevitably, there were moments that recalled some of last year's performance, but none of them suggested a player who was about to lose control of himself. The flashpoints of anger and frustration this time did not destroy him.

Often they spurred him to passages of play which left Djokovic rattled, even briefly disconsolate. Murray's shot-making, which can be a thing of wonder even when he is calling every available demon into his head, has rarely been so ravishing. Last year he spluttered and raged and talked himself into a dismal defeat. This time he kept playing a game in which many have identified potential greatness.

Most persistent was the idea that this might indeed be the year when Murray is gathering himself for the most crucial examination of his ability to break into the mighty axis of Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer. He has, certainly, never been so close to scoring one of those victories which can change a career, even a life.

The presence of a man of Lendl's authority, someone with a withering gaze and zero tolerance for the soft landing ground of easy excuses, is surely a key factor in such a possibility. No doubt he has already told Murray to forget all the larding praise.

This, in the end, was another failure. Of course there have been many, but never before did they carry such hope of redemption. The vital gift may have gone missing again when it mattered most but there was, this time, at least a scent of its presence. Also, the encour-aging suspicion that Lendl, old stoneface, might just track it down.

Good luck to any who would dispel Red mist

There is no shortage of optimism that this lunchtime a new chapter might just open in the troubled and too often vile story of the relationship between the followers of England's two greatest football clubs.

Sir Alex Ferguson has written a letter expressing his hope that the rivalry, while still as red-blooded as a strike meeting in his native Govan, will turn its face against the worst of the hate and the rabble-rousing. Kenny Dalglish yesterday added his own placatory noises.

Yet still you have to wonder about the ability of either of the hard-core factions to begin any kind of healing process, any understanding that football is supposed be a unifying force rather than another reason to get out the cudgels or sing disgustings songs about various human tragedies.

There is absolutely no point in apportioning blame because the most casual research tells you quite how evenly balanced is the urge to inflict scorn and hurt. It is also true that anyone with first-hand experience will tell you that the search for common ground so often appears quite impossible.

This was certainly the case at Anfield six years ago when Liverpool met United in another FA Cup tie, a time when there was nothing so inflammatory as the Luis Suarez case still lingering in the air.

Some time before kick-off a group of Liverpool fans stood paying their respects in front of the memorial to the fallen of Hillsborough, the 96 innocents whose lives were taken in circumstances of the most appalling official neglect.

The tribute was short-lived. Behind a police cordon, United fans were being marched into the stadium. The Liverpool fans, apparently unaware of the tragic irony, yelled "Munich scum!" United fans responded with "Heysel, Hillsborough scum!"

It was a dialogue that continued non-stop throughout the match, one which saw the United player Alan Smith carried off with a broken leg. There were other controversies that day, charges and counter-charges, denials upon denials, and the price of reporting that incident by the memorial was to be lectured by a university professor on the need to understand the healthy dynamics of working- class rivalry.

Good luck to Sir Alex and King Kenny – and anyone else who attempts to drain off some of the poison.

Desert wind blows some good into Test cricket

Trust David 'Bumble' Lloyd to capture perfectly the absurdity of staging world-class sports events in the middle of a desert and in front of mostly empty seats.

"I'll say this," said the brilliant broadcaster, "there's plenty of room to park the car."

However, the second collision between England and Pakistan would be compelling in any setting. England, as befits the world's No 1-ranked Test team, have come back with great force under the excellent direction of coach Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss. Particularly warming has been the return of Monty Panesar, a potential match-winner who has plainly grown stronger under the weight of recent disappointments. At times he has bowled as beautifully as Saeed Ajmal, the inspiration behind Pakistan's impressive return not just to an image of respectability but the authentic fighting heart of Test cricket.

Redemption – and unlimited parking places – may have come on the desert wind but it is no less refreshing for that.

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