Forget about Andy Murray being world number one, Novak Djokovic is man to beat in Melbourne
Novak Djovokic's latest win over Andy Murray in the Qatar Open final reminded us that he will start as a warm favourite to win a seventh Australian Open in Melbourne, writes Desmond Kane.
While Murray ended the old year as number one, finalised by an inspired win over Djokovic in the World Tour finals at London’s O2 in November, the new one hints at a return to the old routine.
If there is a psychological edge to be gleaned from such moments, Djokovic departed Doha with more than just a grandiose trophy complete with glorious golden falcon plopped on top. He is world number two in name only.
Murray proved to be his prey again in the Qatar Open final after Djokovic had briefly toyed with the idea of defeat in an enlivening 6-3 5-7 6-4 success. The Serb is a figure who is suddenly flying high again after limping home in 2016.
After almost three hours and three tumultuous sets, he emerged on the winning side of a match that could have fallen either way with both men snarling, scurrying and scraping for every point.
It was exactly as you would expect with both of these supreme athletes unearthing winners, finding angles and enjoying court coverage that you would scarcely believe imaginable. Melbourne should be marvellous based on this latest tête-à-tête.
Yet crucially, Djokovic was left unscathed after the exchange of fire. Again. He leads Murray 25-11 in career head to heads, winning 13 of their 16 meetings since the summer of 2014, when he became world number one.
Little gulf in the Gulf then, but better being victorious flying to Victoria for the season’s first Grand Slam.
With Murray surrendering a 28-match running sequence that saw him rake in eight tournaments in the closing six months of last year, including a second Wimbledon, to usurp Djokovic in the rankings, it was perhaps essential for the Serbian player to reassert himself here.
Murray, who read notes between points in Qatar that were probably not the works of Rabbie Burns, will not read too much into such a defeat, but for Djokovic it should mean everything after he somehow lost a self-belief that had made him impenetrable.
“All the way to the last shot, you never know with Andy,” he said. “It is no strange occurrence to play three sets over three hours.
"It means a lot because in the last three months of 2016, I haven’t felt that confident on the court."
"I didn’t play so consistent so to start the year with a win over the world number one is a dream start. I’m hoping I can get the best out of it. "
Djokovic appeared to be heading for a win in straight sets courtesy of a break in each set only for Murray to save three match points on his opponent’s serve when trailing 5-4 in the second. He broke again in the 12th game with the theatrical Djokovic by then having wrecked a racket and copping one of two warnings for his general conduct.
Murray has lost all 20 matches against Djokovic when he loses the first set, and the malady lingers on.
Serbia's Novak Djokovic poses with the winner's trophy after beating Britain's Andy MurrayAFP
As if to underline his reputation as one of the greatest returners in the sport's history, Murray has not failed to break an opponent’s serve in 112 straight matches, but it was not enough for rare back-to-back wins over Djokovic.
He led 3-2 and 0-30 on the Djokovic serve in the deciding set only for the lithe and bendable world number two to eke out a win by holding and breaking a poor Murray service game to love in the seventh game. There was no way back for Murray as Djokovic finalised arrangements with a conviction not witnessed since last summer.
There was a resistance about Djokovic’s play that bodes well as he entertains thoughts of winning a seventh Australian Open and 13th major before the month is out.
Djokovic dragged himself off the baseline 35 times in Doha, and won 70 percent of his points at the net. “Controlled aggression is the way to way,” opined Djokovic.
When push comes to shove in these taut contests, there remains the feeling that he still has the minerals to unseat Murray when he desires. He is the only player in the sport who can manage such a lofty feat, but then again Murray is the most obvious clear and present danger to Djokovic’s recent dominance at the Slams. Now more than ever before.
Serbia's Novak Djokovic poses with the winner's trophy after beating Andy Murray during their final tennis match at the ATP Qatar Open in Doha on January 7, 2017.Eurosport
Djokovic won this title a year ago in Doha before winning the Australian Open and French Open in completing his career Grand Slam with final successes against Murray on both surfaces validating his legacy as one of only eight men to snare all four majors.
His loss to Sam Querrey in the third round of Wimbledon heralded a decline that few saw coming. He lost the US Open final to Stanislas Wawrinka in September before finally falling off his perch at the summit.
For Murray, the world number one, Doha was an advance warning of what could lie ahead.
Unless something seismic happens to alter the traditional narrative, these two will come together for the Australian Open final on January 29 on Rod Laver Arena. It is fair to say Djokovic laid down a magnificent marker in Doha.
‘Sir Andy’ must see a different future rather than returning to the role of nearly man against a true knight of tennis. But Djokovic has started this year the way he started the last year. A case of out with the old, and in with the old? Perhaps.
Djokovic is a figure who has rediscovered himself.