By Richard Pagliaro | Saturday January 7, 2017
Remnants of the wreckage littered the ground around Novak Djokovic.
The mangled Head racquet, sweat-soaked shirts and the bump on the back of his head from a second-set fall were all signs of stress for the Serbian.
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None of them were as painful as three championship points Andy Murray saved to force the final set at the Qatar Open.
Surveying the scene around him, Djokovic stood up and created control from the carnage.
Recovering from a second-set lapse, a defiant Djokovic defeated Murray, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, successfully defending his Doha championship and snapping the world No. 1’s 28-match winning streak.
If this pulsating two hour, 54-minute final is a prelude of what’s to come, then we’re all in for a thrill ride of a season.
The top seed saved three championship points when Djokovic served for the title at 5-4 sparking a four-game run that saw Murray force a final set.
In the end, No. 2 was a little too tough for a determined No. 1 salvaging a victory that should infuse him with confidence ahead of his Australian Open title defense.
“It means a lot,” Djokovic said afterward. “The last three months of 2016 I haven’t felt that confident on court. I didn’t play so consistent. To start off the year with a win against number one in the world and biggest rival—it’s a dream start. So I hope I can get the best out of it.”
It was Murray's first loss since Juan Martin del Potro outdueled him in the Davis Cup semifinals last September. Djokovic fought off five of seven break points, raising his record to 25-11 against the 29-year-old Scot.
The year-end world No. 1 ranking was on the line that last time the rivals met.
In that match, Djokovic showed signs of resignation. The rematch was all about about resilience.
The first four-time finalist in Doha history, Murray was bidding to join Roger Federer as the second three-time champion in the tournament’s 25-year history.
Djokovic was in no mood for milestones.
“Well definitely one of the best ways to start the year,” Djokovic said. “After saying five match points winning semifinals, he turned it around I thought ‘Wow I hope this is not payback time.’
“He was close 3-2 up and 0-30 (in the third set) a couple of long exchanges. (He fought) all the way until the last shot. You never know with Andy. It’s not strange occurrence for both of us to play basically three sets for three hours. It’s a very physical battle. We’re both gonna need a little time to recover from that and get ready for Melbourne.”
Spreading the court beautifully and sometimes wrong-footing the world No. 1 with daggers down the line, Djokovic opened this final striking with more authority than he’d shown fighting off five match points to rally past Fernando Verdasco in last night’s semifinal.
Twelve minutes into the match, Murray carved out a forehand drop shot to earn the first break point. Djokovic saved it and answered with an exquisite drop-shot of his own working through another deuce hold for 2-1 in a game that was briefly interrupted for the Serbian to get treatment for a bloody thumb.
An increasingly jittery Murray was griping at his box as he blew a 40-15 lead in the eighth game. Floating a forehand long, Murray shanked a forehand donating the break and a 5-3 lead.
The Djokovic forehand finished the set in style. He dotted the baseline with a forehand for triple-set point then slashed a forehand winner down the line to close. Djokovic more than doubled the top seed’s winner output—13 to 5—collecting the first set in 49 minutes.
The bad news for Murray: Djokovic served 81 percent and did not drop a point on his second serve. The worse news: Murray was a dismal 0-19 when losing the first set to his former junior rival.
Taking a jarring tumble rolling over his left foot, the back of Djokovic’s head hit the hard surface as he crashed to the court in the seventh game of the second set.
“Are you all right?” asked Murray, who crossed the net to check on his fallen foe. Rubbing the back of his head, Djokovic shook off the fall and snatched double break point when Murray compounded a double fault with a forehand error. Murray saved the first, but clanked a second double fault to gift the break and a 4-3 lead to the champion.
Serving for the title at 5-4, he built a 30-0 lead only to double fault and see Murray crank a backhand winner for break point. Dancing around a mid-court slice, Djokovic unloaded on a sweeping inside-out forehand winner to deny break point.
Credit Murray for continuing to scrap in fighting off three championship points. On his first championship point, Djokovic narrowly missed a backhand down the line. Following a forehand forward, Djokovic knocked off a smash urging the crowd to make more noise for his third championship point before an error brought him back to deuce.
Finally piercing the Serbian’s defense, Murray punished an inside-out forehand ending a 12-and-a-half minute game and earning his first break after one hour, 52-minutes to level for 5-all. Frustration from his inability to close left an enraged Djokovic bellowing at his box to vent.
Emotional volatility cost Djokovic in the 11th game.
Missing a clear look at a backhand pass, Djokovic wound up and slammed his Head racquet to the court.
That transgression, following a code violation for slapping a ball into the stands during the first set, resulted in a point penalty from chair umpire Carlos Bernardes completing a Murray hold for 6-5 as Djokovic tossed the battered stick behind his court-side seat.
Bolting a backhand pass crosscourt, Murray followed with a flat backhand down the line for double set point. Djokovic saved the first with a serve-and-volley, but Murray banged a big backhand return to seize a set on a four-game run. Murray won 12 of 12 trips to net snatching the 74-minute second set.
The Wimbledon champion won 17 of 18 net approaches in the match, a stat that suggests Murray could have applied his net skills even more.
Stalling his free-fall and regaining emotional control were immediate challenges for the 12-time Grand Slam champion. Djokovic regained his range and re-established control after saving a break point in the sixth game. A blistering forehand earned break point and Djokovic broke for 4-3 when Murray netted a backhand.
That was the only break of the decider.
Serving again to close, Djokovic ended an athletic rally curling a forehand winner down the line to conclude a physical two hour, 54-minute test.
The world’s top two shared a laughing embrace at net in what may well be a prelude to another major clench in Melbourne.