Murray falls short but summit is in sight
World No 1 Djokovic proves too good in glorious semi-final before Briton cites influence of coach Lendl as reason for new belief in his quest for a Grand Slam title
It was another defeat at the tail-end of a Grand Slam tournament, another day when his lifetime's ambition remained unfulfilled.
But this was different. Andy Murray lost to Novak Djokovic in a spell-binding semi-final at the Australian Open, but only after delivering a performance that left him believing more than ever that he has what it takes to win one of his sport's greatest prizes.
The 24-year-old Scot's 6-3, 3-6, 6-7, 6-1, 7-5 defeat by the defending champion lasted 10 minutes short of five hours. The longest match Murray has ever played ended in his sixth defeat in a Grand Slam semi-final – to add to three losses in finals – but it was on a very different level to his previous disappointments. If beating Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals of the 2008 US Open was Murray's greatest victory, this was his most heroic defeat.
It was a complete contrast to last year's final, when Djokovic's crushing victory sent Murray into a slump that lasted until the clay-court season. While a defeat is still a defeat, the manner of it augured well for Murray's future. With the influence of his new coach, Ivan Lendl, already clear, the world No 4 stayed focused during poor spells in the first and fourth sets and recovered to play some of his best tennis, attacking Djokovic at every opportunity. For perhaps the first time, he looked like a future Grand Slam champion.
The match was full of breathtaking rallies from the baseline, the two men thumping the ball as though they had a personal grudge against it. They are two of the quickest players and time and again they defied belief to keep the rallies going.
At different stages, both struggled with the physical demands of a match that Murray described as "brutal". Djokovic had trouble with his breathing, Murray looked a spent force in the fourth set and both had to find a second wind after some punishing rallies – one of which comprised 42 strokes – in the second and third sets.
There was certainly no shame in losing to Djokovic, who has been the game's outstanding player in the last 13 months and will attempt to win his fifth Grand Slam title in tomorrow's final against Nadal. Devastatingly quick and with legs apparently made of rubber, the 24-year-old Serb converts stonewall defence into exhilarating attack at the blink of an eye. The world No 1 has extraordinary self-belief and a wonderful temperament.
That was never more evident than in a remarkable end to the final set. Murray, having gone 5-2 down, fought back to 5-5 and was within five points of victory when he had three break points for a 6-5 lead. Djokovic saved the first with an unreturned serve and the second with a superb forehand down the line, though he got away with the third when Murray put a poor backhand into the net. Having clung on to his serve, Djokovic broke Murray for the 11th time to secure victory.
Asked if he felt closer to winning his first Grand Slam title, Murray said: "Yes, I think so. Tonight's match was important for many reasons. Obviously I wanted to win, first and foremost. But after last year and the year that Novak's had, I think there's a very fine line between being No 1 in the world and being No 3 or No 4. I feel tonight I closed that gap. My job over the next two or three months is to surpass him and the guys in front of me."
Murray felt he was "a different player, with a different attitude to this time last year". "I feel now I'm ready mentally. Physically I can still get better, for sure, but in comparison to how I played last year, it was much, much better. Everyone always says: 'Andy's too passive, he doesn't go for his shots enough.' I think tonight I did that."
Acknowledging the contribution of Lendl, Murray said: "When you look up at someone like that in the stands it helps. I want to try and repay the faith that he's shown in me.
"He told me it was going to be painful. He said: 'You'll win, but you're going to have to go through a lot of pain to get there, so be ready for that.' He told me a couple of nights ago: 'Prepare yourself mentally for that, to go through a lot of pain, a lot of tough points to play when your legs are sore and your legs are burning.'"
A warm evening with little breeze provided perfect conditions. The 15,000 crowd was clearly on Murray's side, which was quite a compliment given that Djokovic has won the title here twice. Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall were here, as was Julia Gillard, the Australian prime minister, who was booed when her face was shown on the big screen.
Both players took time to find their stride, with Murray making 20 unforced errors in the first set, including 12 on his forehand. Three successive breaks left Djokovic with a 4-2 lead, after which the Serb served out to take the set.
Djokovic took a 2-0 lead in the second set, but at no stage did Murray lose his composure. The Scot cut out his mistakes and looked a changed man after two spectacular points in succession when he broke to 2-2. Twice in a row he unleashed big approach shots before putting away smashes, the first a slam dunk of which Pete Sampras would have been proud.
Having found his rhythm on his forehand, Murray won four games in succession to take a 4-2 lead, after which even Lendl pumped his fist when his man saved a break point in the next game. Djokovic went on to make the break, only to drop his own serve again as Murray levelled the match.
After two hours and 19 minutes, Murray took the lead for the first time when he broke to go 2-1 up in the third set, only to drop his serve in the following game. Both men were starting to look tired and when Murray served at 4-5 he produced a superhuman effort to save three set points with an ace, a thumping forehand cross-court winner and a courageous drop shot.
When Murray broke in the following game the crowd erupted. Yet again Djokovic broke back immediately when Murray served for the set, but the Scot played a magnificent tie-break, winning it 7-4. Murray let out a huge roar and everyone in his entourage leapt to their feet – except Lendl.
The third set took 88 minutes and appeared to take its toll on Murray. Djokovic took control of the fourth as Murray appeared to conserve his energy for the decider. When Djokovic broke to lead 4-2 in the final set the end seemed nigh, but it was the prelude to an extraordinary climax. When Murray put a forehand into the net on match point, Djokovic fell on his back in celebration. It was as if he had won the final, which was perhaps the greatest tribute he could have paid to his opponent.
* Britain's Liam Broady and Joshua Ward-Hibbert won the boys' doubles title, beating Adam Pavlasek, of the Czech Republic, and Filip Veger of Croatia 6-3, 6-2 in the final.
Nine and counting: Murray's major woes when in final four
Wimbledon 2009: Lost to Andy Roddick (right): 6-4, 4-6, 7-6, 7-6
Wimbledon 2010: Lost to Rafael Nadal: 6-4, 7-6, 6-4
Wimbledon 2011: Lost to Rafael Nadal: 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4
French Open 2011: Lost to Rafael Nadal: 6-4, 7-5, 6-4
US Open 2011: Lost to Rafael Nadal: 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2
Australian Open 2012: Lost to Novak Djokovic: 6-3, 3-6, 6-7, 6-1, 7-5
US Open 2008: Lost to Roger Federer: 6-2, 7-5, 6-2
Australian Open 2010: Lost to Roger Federer (right): 6-3, 6-4, 7-6
Australian Open 2011: Lost to Novak Djokovic: 6-4, 6-2, 6-3
Six turning points: Key moments
First set, fourth game (Djokovic leads 3-1)
Murray makes an unforced error, then a double-fault, to allow the world No 1 an early break on his way to a scrappy 6-3 set.
Second set, fourth game (Murray levels 2-2)
The top seed falters under pressure from Murray's aggression, and a terrific backhand helps the Scot wipe out a two-game deficit. It's game on.
Third set, first game (Djokovic leads 1-0)
The Serb fends off five break points during an 18-minute game.
Third set tie-break (Murray wins 7-4)
Britain's No 1 serves well to overpower Djokovic in a set lasting 90 minutes. Murray is one set away from a fourth Slam final.
Fourth set, fourth game (Djokovic leads 4-0)
Two aces from Djokovic as he racks up four straight games far too easily, taking the set 6-1 in just 25 minutes to tie the match.
Fifth set, 11th game (Djokovic leads 6-5)
Djokovic saves three break points and powers a huge second serve at deuce that the Scot cannot return. Murray must serve to stay in the tournament. He fails.
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