IN THE latest joust between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray at Rod Laver arena on Sunday night, cousinly co-claimants to emperor Roger Federer's slipping crown, Djokovic prevailed 6-7 7-6 6-3 6-2.
For nearly three hours, triumph had seemed as fairytale faraway for either player as the plucking of Excalibur from a rock. Then the after-effects of Murray's semi-final campaign against Federer suddenly told, and Djokovic marauded to victory, so avenging his loss to Murray in the US Open final last year, becoming the first player in the Open era to win three Australian Opens in a row, and condemning Murray to a third defeat here. But it left the feeling that there will be many more battles before this succession business is decided.
Nothing about the start of this finale predicted its abrupt end. These were equals and alikes as rarely before: a week apart in age, opponents since they were 11, one-time doubles partners who still occasionally hit up together, now Nos 1 and 3 in the world, with a long history of long matches against each other, including marathons in a semi-final here last year and later in the US Open final. Both are archetypal modern players.
They shook hands on a fair fight at the net, and played it that way. From neither player was there triumphalism, lest it seem like flaunting. Such trash-talking as each did was only to himself. To each other, they showed only courtesy and game face. When Murray made an extraordinary backhand, half-volley winner at the net at a delicate moment early in the third set, Djokovic applauded. When at last he prevailed, he blessed himself, but refrained from his usual shirt-ripping theatrics, this also was in deference to Murray, you suspect.
Though there was waxing and waning to begin, neither managed even to break the other's serve until the match was nearly three hours old, let alone even dent the other's spirit. Between them, there was too much respect for either even to think about taking a liberty. They had their principalities. Djokovic's was on or inside the baseline, Murray's behind it. Djokovic was the aggressor, Murrray a passive aggressor: that fine line again.
In the first set tie-breaker, Djokovic began with a double fault, and never made good the deficit. Djokovic had an early scare in the second set, falling 0-40 behind on serve, but recovered to take it to another tie-break. For him, winning it was imperative, and that was force enough. If you were to pick a difference in these sets, it would be to say that the tie-breaker score was slightly against the run of play.
The third set was a pitched battle, too, until Djokovic suddenly wrenched the match his way by crashing through Murray three times in four service games to win this set and establish a unbridgable break in the fourth. This unravelling began on the three-hour threshold, when it seemed that the physical toll of Murray's gruelling semi-final against Federer kicked in. Djokovic was a prowling figure now, and Murray took on aspects of prey. Murray said he expected pain this night, and now he had it. There would be no relief. Djokovic grew ever stronger; in the end, he faced only only four break points against serve. Early in the first set, Djokovic played one shot as he tumbled sideays to the court, rose, and won the point.
It was not a significant moment in the scoring, but it seemed to announce that between such finely matched opponents, it would take something extra to resolve a winner. So it proved.