Novak Djokovic guts out five-set thriller

MELBOURNE, Australia -- What a difference a year made in a second consecutive match between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray at the Australian Open.

Last year in the Australian Open final -- the very first Grand Slam match that Djokovic and Murray contested -- Murray brought little offense or defense to the table. Djokovic's 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 trouncing of Murray delivered the first of three Grand Slam trophies the Serbian would take home in his dream 2011 season, a year that was sweetened when he became the No. 1 player.

As for Murray, that final loss left the Scotsman in a serious quandary, wondering what it would take to leave a big enough impression, not to mention to win a Grand Slam title, having lost in three major final attempts.

On Friday night, under the lights in Rod Laver Arena, this year's semifinal repeat of last year's final turned out to be a dramatic and hotly contested affair, to the delight of the packed stadium. Yes, in the end, Murray still left the court with the loss, leaving Djokovic with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (4), 6-1, 7-5 victory and a third consecutive Grand Slam final date with Rafael Nadal.

From the outset, this match had all kinds of twists and turns and momentum shifts. Each player showcased his remarkable athleticism with spectacular offense and equally effective defense. There were 18 breaks of serve in the contest, though, with both Djokovic and Murray failing to capitalize in key moments. In the end, though, the defending champ just had a little too much game.

"Yeah, I have to be satisfied," said Djokovic after coming through the 4-hour, 50-minute thriller. "I have to be happy. As I said, as a tennis player, you practice hard every single day knowing that you will get an opportunity to be part of such a great match and on such a high level."

Last year when Murray walked off the court, he had every right to hang his head. He put up a poor performance and allowed his emotions to take him out of the occasion.

This year, despite the defeat, Murray showed tremendous heart and had every right to walk off the court holding his head tall and proud. He competed extremely well, challenging the world No. 1 every step of the way.

"I don't think I necessarily went away the last couple of years with a negative attitude," Murray said. "It was more like it knocks your confidence a little bit."

Murray came to Melbourne a different man in 2012. He had a new coach in former great Ivan Lendl, and while it's too early for Lendl to have a serious impact after only a couple of weeks, some differences can already be detected. A more mature Murray is emerging. During this year's duel, when things weren't going well, he not only kept his focus, but managed not to whinge at his friends' box as if his failings were their fault.

"It was obviously a very good match," Murray said. "[I'm] a different player, a different attitude to this time last year. Yeah, I'm proud of the way I fought. I don't think I let myself down today.

"You know, everybody matures at different ages and different rates. I feel now like, yeah, I'm ready mentally. Physically I can still get better for sure. But in comparison to how I played last year, it was much, much better."

Even Djokovic noticed the change in Murray: "He was more confident on the court. He was taking his chances. He was being more aggressive. I think he was playing better."

Murray's game also showed changes, in particular his forehand, which looked far more formidable after Lendl spent a goodly amount of time feeding balls and working the shot during practices.

When the match was over, the crowd in Rod Laver Arena -- with Laver and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard in attendance -- erupted into a standing ovation for the two warriors. When Murray left the court, even Djokovic applauded him.

The semifinal provided another example of why the word "indomitable" is clearly the proper adjective to describe Djokovic. These days, the four-time Grand Slam champion brims with confidence even when the going is tough, a trait that's enabled him to be deemed virtually impenetrable.

Murray had a two-sets-to-one lead in the match, and there's no denying that in the second and third set Djokovic looked vulnerable and fatigued. But Djokovic dug into his reserve and bettered Murray in the fourth set.

"I think we both went through a physical crisis," said Djokovic, who has been suffering with allergies. "You know, him at the fourth set, me all the way through the second and midway through the third.

"But it was a very even match throughout, from the first to the last point. As I said on the court, I think we both found it easier to break each other's serve rather than just, you know, serve it out and keep our serve going."

The real battle ignited midway through the fifth set. Djokovic led 5-2, but Murray wouldn't go away. At 5-3, Djokovic was serving for the match, but uncharacteristically failed to close it out, losing his serve at love with the last two shots being powerful Murray forehand winners.

Murray looked on the winning track at 5-5 when he held three break points on Djokovic's serve in a game that lasted 12 points. But Murray couldn't capitalize on those opportunities, allowing Djokovic to hold on. Those break points would turn out to be the Scot's last stand.

The end finally came when Djokovic broke serve in the final game. From 15-15, Murray would make three blunders, the first two unforced backhand errors and the final a forced forehand into the net off a scorching flat forehand power shot from Djokovic.

With Murray taken care of and ready to jet home, Djokovic moves on to the final.

There's no denying that it will be Nadal who is on the hot seat in the final. The 10-time Grand Slam champion -- Nadal won his lone Australian Open title in 2009 -- lost all six finals he played against Djokovic last year, including at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Their history still allows Nadal to enjoy a 16-13 winning edge, but the Spaniard's last victory over Djokovic was over a year ago in the 2010 ATP Tour World Finals.

"I know that I maybe have a mental edge because I've won six finals the five or six times we played in 2011 and I've had lots of success against him," Djokovic said of Nadal, who still holds a 16-13 career advantage in their meetings. "On the other hand, it's a new year. It's a new challenge."

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.