Sunday, 30 January 2011

Mere mortals can’t win majors any more

On Sunday, Novak Djokovic won his second Australian Open title with a superb performance, spectacular in flashes, against Andy Murray. Murray’s own display was below-par, make no mistake, but he is an excellent tennis player who ultimately ran into a far better one today. Djokovic played an incredible championship, and demonstrated not only the supreme standards of his own game, but also the clear gulf in quality between the top three and the rest of the field.  Murray may have, in very disappointing fashion, gone missing in his third consecutive Grand Slam final, but at the moments when Djokovic was required by his opponent to show his true quality, he did not disappoint.

Over the past twelve months Djokovic has overcome problems with his serve and fitness to make considerable improvements to his game. He is now good enough to fulfil his early promise as a contender to the Federer/Nadal dominance, a remarkable feat considering the bar the latter two have set over the past two years. Most crucially to Djokovic’s win was his ultimately unstoppable all-round game, which he continued to raise according to the standard of his opponent. He would reach balls considered unlikely by the extraordinary standards of Nadal, maintaining balance in order for him to unleash with his next shot; his huge baseline game was unplayable – in this facet he has now eclipsed Federer; and players of considerable quality – Berdych (who managed to reach the levels of his Wimbledon final last year), Federer and Murray – never looked close to beating him over 5 sets. He beat each of them in three.

In order to win a Grand Slam, Djokovic has elevated his game to the remarkable, almost superhuman standards that we saw from Nadal last year and Federer in the years previous. Indeed, Djokovic played a world-class quarter, semi and championship match, when the term ‘world-class’ is these days almost synonymous with genius. Djokovic has won his second major title in an era of greats and, at this rate, will win more, confirming that he will not be remembered as an ‘also-ran’ in an era that includes two of the game’s greatest ever champions. Murray is a terrific player, but he is not yet good enough. It seems that you have to be immortal, unstoppable in order to win a Grand Slam title these days, such is the standard Federer and Nadal have set, and Djokovic has evidently matched.

Whereas there remain (if barely) exploitable faults in Murray’s game, the game’s greats have made themselves almost impossible to beat on the big occasion. It would appear that the greatest fault in Murray’s game, if you can call it that, is that he has not reached the galactic levels of his contemporaries, a standard he will have to reach if he wants to win a Grand Slam soon. It is both a privilege and a curse for him to be playing in such a strong generation. I look forward to a Slam featuring Djokovic, a fully-fit Nadal and a resurgent Federer. That will be some spectacle, a gift from the game’s Gods.

As for Nadal’s dream of holding all four majors, the tears in his eyes at a changeover in the third set against David Ferrer told the story. It was unfortunate that injury hit to get in the way of this surely once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, though he would have struggled to match Djokovic. Roger Federer, who turns 30 this summer, was again too inconsistent in the face of the relentless power of Djokovic. But this final, the first to feature neither of the world’s top two in three years, does not represent a changing of the guard, more the start of what promises to be an exciting and highly competitive year’s tennis. Murray will have to improve his already outstanding game if he wants to be a part of it, but a part of it he can still be.