Collapse Will Prey on Murray's Mind

His bleak stare suggested that he didn\'t want to explain anything but smash rackets instead.

Published: 02nd February 2015 08:10 AM  |   Last Updated: 02nd February 2015 08:29 AM   |  A+A-

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For much of its three hours, the film Magnolia is a splintered but gripping human drama about love and loss in the San Fernando Valley. Then, quite suddenly, just as the various plot strands build to a common resolution, something utterly baffling happens: frogs start falling from the sky. Live frogs. Millions of them. No explanation is given. The film ends.

Various exegeses were put forward. Some thought it was a Biblical reference. Some thought it was a musing on the randomness and absurdity of life. Nobody will ever know for sure. But the point is this: just as it is impossible to discuss Magnolia without speculating on its inscrutable ending, sometimes it is necessary to explain the inexplicable. Or try to, at least.

As Andy Murray tottered over to his chair at the end of his match against Novak Djokovic, his bleak and distant stare suggested that he was not in the mood for explaining anything yet. He was more interested in smashing rackets - accounts vary on whether it was two or three. But at some stage he will need to find some way to make sense of the weird and catastrophic collapse that occurred at the end of this final.

About the most charitable spin you could put on Murray's peculiar meltdown in the third set was that it was pretty out of character. He had played superlative tennis for a fortnight, only to lose nine straight games at the end of it. And yet while it might be tempting to write off that last hour as an anomaly, a strange and violent disruption of the delicate equilibrium that had come before it, ultimately Murray's progress in the sport depends on solving his very own riddle of the raining frogs.

It was the occasion, as well as Djokovic, that defeated him in the end: the sheer strain of spending 219 minutes in the world's most elaborate prison. And after three sets of such beautiful agony, a match you could simultaneously not watch and not stop watching, the finish was strangely anticlimactic: like an epic swordfight that ends with someone tripping over a pot plant.

For all the wailing and gnawing of nails, perhaps a little perspective is required here. Djokovic, now a five-time champion in Melbourne, has now won 32 of his last 33 matches at this tournament. "The greatest Plexicushion player of his generation" may not have much of a ring to it, but beating him on what is effectively his home court is becoming as insurmountable a task as overcoming Rafael Nadal on clay.

And, initially at least, what a tussle it was: a match of jaw-dropping breadth and intensity, during which we were treated to every shot in the book, every possible facial expression. As minutes turned to hours, as cups of tea from Melbourne to Motherwell went cold in people's hands, the rallies and the grunts and the grimaces bled into each other.

There were remarkable exchanges, too many to count, when we appeared to be watching a sort of sporting capoeira: lunging and vaulting and spinning and doing the splits. All around the stadium, you could see wide, dilated pupils and flushed faces: the cheeks of people who had inhaled and inhaled and not stopped inhaling. Murray's fiancee, Kim Sears, appeared to be chewing her hands off. Ten thousand miles away in Monte Carlo, Jelena Djokovic announced on Twitter midway through that she needed a walk.

And then. As Murray later put it: "I just dropped off for, like, 10 minutes and it got away from me."

In the days and weeks to come, Murray will replay those 10 minutes over and over in his mind. Djokovic tumbling over as he played the ball, hobbling away gingerly. Murray's reaction, telling himself "he does this all the time", with an emphasis that suggested this was anything but routine. The distinction between the physical, technical and mental facets of sport is often false. More usually they are part of the same moment.

Murray actually broke serve after Djokovic had started limping. It was only when he was broken back that he began to break: mouthing oaths, smacking the ball into the air in frustration, slapping easy forehands into the net. An hour later, Djokovic was lifting the trophy and Murray was destroying several hundred pounds worth of carbon graphite.

Clearly then, something had gone wrong somewhere. Before the match, most observers had called it as an even-money contest. Some had even made him favourite, if not Murray himself. It even felt, potentially, like a new dawn: a taste of the future as well the present, the sport's next great rivalry. Between them, after all, Murray and Djokovic have won nine of the last 17 grand slams. The trouble is that Murray is responsible for just two of them.

In Murray, I suspect Djokovic sees the player he once was; in Djokovic, Murray sees the player he might yet be. He sees a less brittle forehand, a more robust and confident second serve, a flatter and more vicious backhand slice, a better idea of how to husband energy over these long, gruelling encounters.

And yet, until Djokovic's decisive break in the third set, Murray had won 105 points to 103. It is hard to say where and how he can find that extra fraction, or even what it might consist of. But until he does, Djokovic v Murray will be less of a rivalry and more of a chase.

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