It was a moment that summed up Andy Murray's afternoon at the Monte Carlo Masters here yesterday. Novak Djokovic, having won the first set 6-0, was serving at 4-4 and 30-0 when he struck a forehand winner that was called in. Murray could see that the imprint left by the ball proved that it was out, but, just as the umpire started to climb down from his chair to confirm the Scot's verdict, a ballgirl ran over the mark, obliterating the evidence. The "in" call stood, Djokovic won the next five points and Murray was on his way home.
After the promise of Murray's victories here over Feliciano Lopez and Filippo Volandri – his first back-to-back tournament wins on clay on the senior tour – it was an anticlimactic end to the 20-year-old Scot's week. Djokovic, the world No 3 and the most successful player this year, was always the favourite to progress to the quarter-finals, but Murray eased his passage with an error-strewn display.
This was Murray's fourth defeat in four matches against the Serb, who is one week his junior. Having raced neck-and-neck with Djokovic during their junior careers and their first two years on the senior tour, Murray has been left trailing by his friend and rival over the last 13 months. While the Serb has joined Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in a triumvirate at the top of the game, Murray, his progress having been hampered last year by injuries, has slipped to No 20 in the world, although he looks certain to climb back towards the top 10 as he has so few ranking points to defend over the summer.
Striking the ball with the consistency that has become his hallmark, Djokovic found an excellent length from the start, driving his opponent back behind the baseline. Murray, in contrast, hit too many half-court balls, made too many mistakes and struck too few winners, 12 compared with Djokovic's 24. Only 42 per cent of Murray's first serves found their target and he hit five double-faults, including two on the last two points of the match.
Once Djokovic had broken serve in a second game that lasted more than 15 minutes and featured eight deuces – Murray failed to convert six game points – the first set careered out of his control. The British No 1 earned ironic cheers when he finally got on the scoreboard to level the second set at 1-1, but after breaking serve in the next game he then dropped his own serve with a series of poor shots. It was no surprise when Djokovic broke again at 5-4 to complete victory in an hour and 18 minutes.
"Normally my groundstrokes are very consistent, but I probably only hit about three or four winners and made about 25 or 30 unforced errors," Murray said afterwards. "That's not good enough against a player like Novak.
"He hits the ball very well, serves well, returns well, moves well. He does everything very well. That's why he's a tough player to beat. He's solid off both wings and moves so well."
Djokovic said he was pleased with his own combination of patience and aggression. Of Murray, he said: "I had a feeling that he was a bit too passive throughout the match. He wasn't taking his chances."
Murray has entered the clay-court tournament in Barcelona next week but, with a busy summer ahead, hinted that he may withdraw. His next appearance would then be at the Rome Masters, which starts in 10 days' time, followed by another Masters tournament in Hamburg and then the French Open.
Today's quarter-final line-up here features six of the world's top seven players. Federer, who beat Gaël Monfils in impressive fashion, meets David Nalbandian; Nadal faces David Ferrer; Djokovic plays Sam Querrey; and Nikolai Davydenko takes on his fellow Russian, Igor Andreev.