MELBOURNE, Australia -- When Novak Djokovic reached the U.S. Open final in 2007, he was brash, crass and perhaps even a little cocky.
His tennis progression nonetheless continued, and when he won the 2008 Australian Open, several pundits suggested he'd finish the season as No. 1 in the world. Djokovic played with little fear, mixing exquisite defense with attack.
Then he stuttered. He couldn't win when it mattered, while his health woes surfaced at the wrong time. There was always something wrong. At times, he was jeered by fans. Recall his postmatch lashing geared toward Andy Roddick at the 2008 U.S. Open. That didn't go over so well with the vociferous New York crowd.
All that seems a distant memory after Djokovic ended his three-year Slam drought by routing a hapless Andy Murray 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 in the Australian Open final.
"I feel like a better player now than I was three years ago, because I think that physically I'm stronger, faster, mentally I'm more motivated on the court," Djokovic said. "I know how to react in certain moments, and I know how to play on a big stage. I have been more focused and dedicated to the sport than I have ever been before."
There was every indication the match was going to be a long, arduous battle before Djokovic rattled Murray with a break to end the first set.
Murray's day went south in a hurry. He never recovered. And of course, with it, the anguish of an entire nation persists. Great Britain's hope of exorcising the ghosts of Fred Perry sits at 75 painful years -- and counting.
"To be this good and play this poorly, this is a wake-up call," said ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe. "You need to be mentally tough to come back from this."
Who knows if his brutal semifinal against David Ferrer, in which Murray seemed to hurt his thigh, played a role? Murray admitted he could have moved better, yet didn't make any excuses.
But that's now three major finals for Murray -- and nary a set won. By this time, even his most loyal fans must be wondering if it's ever going to happen. We should point out, though, that Ivan Lendl lost his first four Grand Slam finals before the floodgates opened. Andre Agassi dropped his first three.
He's sure to get heavy criticism back home.
"I want to try and win one, of course," Murray said. "But if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. I'm working as hard as I can. But I love my life away from tennis as well. There are other things to look forward to, too."
Murray's first serve again let him down -- he faced 18 break points in the match. Although there was nothing wrong with his defense, he was outgunned from the baseline.
Nothing new there, either.
The Murray forehand simply isn't in the same league as that of Roger Federer, Nadal or even Djokovic. He can't hit it down the line with depth, and Djokovic knew that full well.
The Serb, who conceded only one set in two weeks and cruised past Federer and Tomas Berdych, did everything well. There were no signs of his ballyhooed serving woes.
On this form, Djokovic is a serious threat to Nadal. He might be better than the player who won his maiden major here three years ago. He's making headlines with his stout on-court game, not impersonations, which, hilarious as they were, rubbed a few the wrong way.
The Davis Cup title in December was a huge boost for Djokovic, and he sought more of that winning feeling. He even donned the colors of Serbia in Melbourne.
"After we won the Davis Cup title, I was feeling great on the court, just eager to compete," Djokovic said. "Davis Cup title and another Grand Slam title. I'm living the dream of a tennis player."
The early stages of this match were pivotal, and when Murray won an action-packed 14-minute second game, it appeared to be a good sign.
But the turning point of the first set -- and ultimately the match -- came in the 10th game, when Djokovic won a thrilling 38-point rally. Gasping for breath in temperatures hovering around 86 degrees, he came to the net. Murray couldn't pass him.
How Murray hoped the heat would get to Djokovic. It didn't. Djokovic cruised from there. He broke Murray six times in the final two sets.
"As soon as Novak raised his level, Andy didn't go with it," said ESPN analyst Darren Cahill. "Big question marks."
So while Murray's frustration continues, Djokovic has clearly established himself as a threat to the Big Two. His Down Under domination just might be the beginning.
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.