After Novak Djokovic overcame Andy Murray in an Australian Open final for the third time to win his 5th Grand Slam down-under and become the first to win five there in the Open era, much of the post-match focus was on Murray’s mental meltdown. All the talk was about how crucial the world number 1’s superior psychological strength had been compared to Murray’s, with the two players so evenly matched for the first two and a half stunning and draining sets of tennis before a stretch of play where Djokovic won nine straight games and 12 of the last 13 to secure his 8th Grand Slam 7-6, 6-7, 6-3, 6-0 in three hours and 39 minutes.
This analysis is completely understandable and correct. Yet it is that first enthralling half of the game that we should be dissecting and examining in greater detail. Although it wasn’t the critical phase that decided the final result it was a perfect portrayal of how, at the very top levels of tennis and professional sport in general, the fractions between success and failure, winning points or losing them, scoring goals or missing, are miniscule. At this stratospheric standard sport really is a game of the finest of margins. Indeed until Djokovic’s ultimately decisive break in the third set, Murray had won 105 points to the Serbian’s 103. By the end Djokovic had covered 2.75 miles to Murray’s 2.74. Murray’s mental collapse itself was arguably caused by a ten minute period during the third set where he lost his focus. A tiny rumble that catalysed the fatal avalanche.
Since beating the Serbian at Wimbledon in 2013, Murray has lost eight of his last nine encounters with Djokovic – each time falling fractionally short. A couple of sloppy ground strokes, a loss of consistency on the first-serve, a few miss-judgements. That is all it takes. At the highest levels, the biggest stages and the most pressurised match situations cracks become gaping fissures. The greats of professional sports are those individuals who keep these mistakes to a minimum and deliver when it counts the most. Some of it is mental, an ability to stay composed, but mainly it comes down to a killer-instinct. The likes of Federer, Djokovic, Serena Williams and the other greats of present and past are or were predators, spotting weaknesses in their prey and either instantly swatting them aside or grinding them into submission.
As much as the scoreline suggests an eventually comfortable victory for Djokovic, the quality and tightness of the first two sets of tennis was astounding. Not just through the many punishing and intense rallies that treated us to almost every shot in the book but via the consistency of both players in these remarkable exchanges. For example Djokovic, who has now drawn level with Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi in Slam wins, struck eleven winners and not a single unforced error in the first twenty minutes of play. Whether it is hitting more winners or producing less errors, the victors in these most jaw-dropping contests are the ones who are able to maintain a level of consistency that is just that bit higher. They are the ones who, after giving out and receiving jab after jab, are able to strike the knockout blow when the opponent drops their guard for that split second. The defeated are often the ones who, be it through miss-fortune or a blip in concentration, leave the door slightly ajar. It could be poor marking, a miss-placed pass, a lack of communication or a sudden spout of erroneous decision-making. Despite playing so well for two sets, Murray abruptly dropped off and Djokovic, almost inevitably, pounced.
The history of sport is littered by examples of the tiny yet significant decisions at key moments that proved decisive. Think Matt Dawson’s decision to take the ball into another ruck to allow Johnny Wilkinson space to kick that famous 2003 World Cup winning drop goal, or David Beckham’s decision to go for goal instead of crossing when scoring that famous late free-kick that sent England to the 2002 World Cup. These miniature margins are made up of athletes who make the right decisions at the right times and those who do not. It in part explains why Djokovic has now won 29 of his last 30 matches in the Rod Laver Arena, or why Rafael Nadal has only lost once at the French Open in the last ten years.
There is such a small difference between the Champions and the contenders yet it is crucial. Sport is full of terrific athletes and teams but far fewer true greats because of this final hurdle that only a select few in each generation are able to conquer. It is what separates those names which are sketched into history and onto trophies and those who go down as the plucky losers who, despite their brilliant efforts and undoubted qualities, just weren’t quite good enough.
The 2015 Australian Open Final may have ended in an anti-climax but it reminded us all of the frequently diminutive boundaries that define professional sport – it is an undertaking engulfed by the finest of margins.