There was a sour taste to the end of another riveting Australian Open final after a play-acting row broke out in Melbourne. Andy Murray came off the court with the stormiest of expressions and later questioned how Novak Djokovic could have gone from rubber-legged immobility to spring-heeled athleticism in a matter of minutes.
Murray's 7-6, 6-7, 6-3, 6-0 defeat meant that he has now lost eight of his last nine meetings with Djokovic, the rival who became a nemesis. But it was not so much the fact that he lost that upset him, more the manner in which his focus unravelled. And, of course, the way that Djokovic sucked him in. It is a long time since we have seen such an abrupt handshake at the end of a grand-slam final.
The issue revolved around the crucial period, around 21/2 hours in, when each player had won a tie-break to render the match all square. It was now that Djokovic started stretching out his legs as if he was cramping. At one point, he fell over and dropped his racket after dumping a routine forehand in the net. At another, he barely even moved to the sort of backhand retrieval shot he normally makes in his sleep.
Murray began to think that he had the game in the palm of his hand. "If someone's cramping in the final of a slam, with such a long way to go, you're feeling pretty good about yourself," he said. The upshot was that he backed off his own groundstrokes a bit, probably thinking that the best tactic would be to work Djokovic around the court. But, instead, Djokovic upped his aggression and caught Murray cold, reeling off the final nine games to claim his fifth Australian Open crown.
"The third set was frustrating because I got a bit distracted when he, like, fell on the ground after a couple of shots," Murray said in the interview room. Asked if he felt that Djokovic had made a deliberate attempt to disconcert him, he replied "I don't know. I would hope that that wouldn't be the case. But, yeah, if it was cramp, that's a tough thing to recover from and play as well as he did at the end."
The use of rope-a-dope tactics in tennis is nothing new. Murray himself has been accused of similar gamesmanship in the past. Yet this is the sort of thing you see more often in junior tournaments than the final of a grand slam between two of the so-called "Big Four".
Yesterday Murray was asked if exaggerating physical discomfort was a legitimate tactic, and answered firmly in the negative. But he also acknowledged that the onus was on the other player not to lose his way. "In all matches, you concentrate on your own end of the court," he said.
"Here and at the US Open, because they have replays after every single point, it's very difficult to not be aware of what's happening down the other end. But, yeah, I play enough matches to be able to handle that situation better. Like I said, I dropped off for 10-15 minutes, and he got back into it. I don't know exactly why it was the case, but I've never really experienced that in a slam final before.
"Maybe the occasion was something to do with it."
The same issue inevitably dominated Djokovic's press conference, which began with the world No?1 -taking a rare sip of celebratory champagne. His version was that he had experienced a "physical crisis - at the end of the second [set], beginning of the third". Which is one plausible reading of the situation. Yet one had to suspect that he was dissembling when he claimed not to have noticed Murray's confused response to his own very visible symptoms. In this instance, most of the 15,000 people in Rod Laver Arena could see Murray losing his rag. Quite a lot of them could hear his furious shouts at himself, which included "Don't worry about him [Djokovic], he does it all the time." It seems unlikely that Djokovic, a master of reading situations, was completely oblivious.
"I'm not going to talk bad things about him in the press or use the word 'excuses'," Djokovic said. "In the match like this, a lot of emotions go on, a lot of tension."
The reaction from most of the former players watching was one of dismay - not so much at Djokovic's antics but more at Murray's lack of sustained nous and composure, which undermined an otherwise fine display. The quality of tennis was superb for most of the first two sets, with so many of those punishing butterfly-shaped rallies covering all corners of the court. But once the panic began to set in, Murray's level fell away dramatically. He later claimed that he finished this 3hr 39min battle feeling in strong physical shape, although that only undermines his mental meltdown.
As for Djokovic, he has now won 29 of his last 30 matches on Rod Laver Arena, the court that might as well be his front room. He got off to a superb start, striking 11 winners and not a single unforced error in the first 20 minutes. Although he had a few flat periods thereafter, he still brought more to the table overall than Murray: a stronger second serve, a greater readiness to rush the net, a ruthless instinct for when to push and when to dig in.
Djokovic now has eight major titles - the same as Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi - with three months still to go before his 28th birthday. After this latest triumph, we can expect him to be a force to reckon with at the one event he has never added to his overflowing trophy cabinet: the French Open in May.