Too Much Luck

Miami Masters, Final

(1) Djokovic d. (4) Murray, 6/1 7/6

Andy Murray reached the Miami Masters final with only three wins, usefully augmented by a pair of walkovers and a bye. To that diverse collection of results Novak Djokovic has now added a loss. The chatter coming into the match had been whether a lack of match play might prove fatal for Murray. If nothing else it was a handy pre-emptive excuse – a ‘precuse’. After he did in fact lose, the consensus was that it hadn’t helped. It turns out the ideal preparation for facing the world’s best player is not a bilious set-to with Janko Tipsarevic, followed by a non-start against Rafael Nadal. Back to the drawing board, I suppose.

Djokovic’s last two rounds, however, represent a timely lesson in how little can be gleaned about tennis matches merely by perusing the scores, which is bad news for those almost forgotten encounters from which only the numbers survive. Djokovic’s quarterfinal against David Ferrer (6/2 7/6) and semifinal against Juan Monaco (6/0 7/6) boasted similar scorelines, and even unfolded in much the same way. Both matches were sustained slug-fests in which the world No.1 produced an opening set that was functionally close to perfect, before fading in the second, precisely as his opponent lifted. In both matches Djokovic eventually broke, and served for the match. Both times he was broken back whilst doing so, and yet won the ensuing tiebreak without discernible issue. In spite of these manifold similarities, the quarterfinal had been the match of the tournament, while the semifinal was barely the match of the day, even when the day’s other match was cancelled.

Today’s final looked like reprising these contours, as Djokovic stormed to a 6/1 opening set. Graphics kept appearing detailing each man’s success in rallies over 10 strokes in length. (There appeared to be no way for viewers to stop them.) Thus enthralled, we discovered that, by the set’s conclusion, both Murray and Djokovic were about equal in this statistic, without, of course, being told why. This fine point was left to the commentators, who as ever proved unequal to the task. ‘Murray is doing very well on the longer rallies,’ the disembodied Sky Sports voices remarked, ‘This bodes well for the Scot.’ What they failed to mention was that Djokovic had been aiming for and missing the lines in the early going, especially on his forehand, and that Murray’s backhand was leaking errors so steadily that most rallies ended prematurely. Over on the Tennis TV feed, Robbie Koenig maintained a sullen silence in protest that his beloved new RPM graphics weren’t being shown. Rally length is all well and good, but how much is the ball spinning?

Backhand aside, Murray wasn’t playing poorly. But you don’t have to play very badly to go down 6/1 to Djokovic. The Sky coverage cut back to the studio, and to the avowedly expert opinions of Greg Rusedski and Barry Cowan, both of whom fell short of non-partisanship. ‘So what does Murray need to do?’ asked the host, Marcus Buckland. Rusedski responded at almost impossible length that ‘For Murray this match is all about the second set.’ It was a hard contention to argue with, insofar as this was the set they were scheduled to play next, having just now concluded the first. Would it still be about the second set if they went to a third? But did Rusedski mean that it had always been about the second set, and that Murray had come into this final willing to spot the world No.1 and defending champion a head start? Did he assume based on his last two matches that Djokovic would lose focus in the second set? It seemed like a tenuous thread from which to suspend a strategy.

Somehow, though, Rusedski was almost right, the way all broken Canadians are at least twice per day. Within the narrow parameters that Djokovic established in the last two rounds, it turns out that infinite variety is possible. The Serb’s level dipped, and the Scot’s rose. Murray’s game point conversion rate remained horrendous, yet somehow he was holding. He even earned a break point, but looked nonplussed and gave it back. At 6/5 he came within two points of the set. Djokovic served an ace up the T, which Murray took personally. The clock ticked past two hours. The tiebreak hove into view, gradually and painfully, like an obese elephant seal cresting a sand dune. Somehow it arrived without Djokovic failing to serve for the match. Finally, the match looked like breaking new ground. There were no rules. Anything might happen. I felt giddy.

What did happen is that Murray maintained his commitment to flaccid groundstroke errors, and that he followed up one of the greatest drop shots I’ve ever seen with a double fault. It was typical of a day when he produced many terrific points, but almost never consecutively. Djokovic, it must be said, was hardly any better. But he was slightly better, and better enough in every meaningful aspect of the sport. Stats generally tell us little that isn’t obvious from watching the actual match, but having actually watched it, I can say that a combined count of 77 unforced errors and 35 winners feels about right. Of those errors, Murray struck 39, of which over half were from the backhand, ostensibly among the game’s finest. The last one came from the forehand, however, drifting long. Djokovic watched it land, and raised his arms in restrained triumph.

For Murray, losing a fairly dull Miami final is a spectacular improvement over last year, when he lost to Alex Bogomolov, or even last week, when he lost to Garcia-Lopez. Sometimes you just need a little luck, and your fortunes are reversed. Having Milos Raonic and Nadal cleared from your path is more than a little luck, though. The belief that it was too much luck is not confined to the Sky Sports studio.

For Djokovic, Miami 2012 is his 11th Masters title, which ties him for fourth on the all-time list, equal with Pete Sampras, and behind only Federer and Nadal (19 each), and Agassi (17). There is a pervasive feeling that Djokovic has not matched last year’s form in 2012. It’s true that he is no longer winning literally everything, and his godlike level now lasts a set instead of, say, eight months. But despite that, he is still winning. Miami is an event of some significance – I recall Sampras referring to it as the fifth major after winning in 2000, long before that phantom accolade devolved into a marketing gimmick – and for Djokovic to have won it with so little difficulty tells us everything we need to know. It tells us that he remains the best player in the world.

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