<
>

How Novak Djokovic is helping Andy Murray stay on top

The way Andy Murray is playing, he could provide the plotline for the next blockbuster movie in the Hangover series. The Scotsman's lethargy and fuzzy focus aren't the result of a wild night out in Las Vegas or South Beach. They're likely the price he's paying for his mad race to the top last year.

The numbers were impressive: Murray played in 17 tournaments in 2016, winning nine of 13 finals. He also played some Davis Cup matches, and he won Olympic singles gold. At the very end of the year, in the run that enabled him to rip the No. 1 ranking out of Novak Djokovic's hands, Murray played five ATP Tour events between Oct. 3 and Nov. 11. He won them all.

Equally impressive? The falloff.

Murray is still ranked No. 1, but it's almost by default. He has won just one midlevel tournament this year. He's had to recover from rough days and nights in Melbourne, Indian Wells, Monte Carlo and, most recently, the Madrid Masters, where he was beaten in a lackluster performance Thursday by lucky loser Borna Coric, 6-3, 6-3.

Tennis Channel broadcaster Paul Annacone wrapped it up accurately on air at the end when he remarked: "Andy was never clear, never comfortable, never confident."

Murray is 16-6 in 2017, and he has just one thing to feel cheerful about: His putative rival Djokovic has gone as wobbly, if not more so, and with less good reason.

Disgusted by his poor results this year, Djokovic fired his entire coaching staff shortly before the start of Madrid. The only one left is recent addition Pepe Imaz, who is more Dalai Lama than Bill Belichick. Perhaps a little help from the spiritual world is exactly what Djokovic needs as he tries to revive a game that just 12 months ago was good enough to produce a quality, three-set triumph over Murray in the Madrid final.

The fight for the summit between Murray and Djokovic was supposed to be the major storyline in the ATP in 2017. Things got off to a great start, too, with Djokovic exacting a tough three-set revenge win over Murray in the final of Doha, an ATP 250 event, during the first week in January. That remains the only title Djokovic has won this season.

Following suit in March, Murray picked up his lone title in that other cash-rich desert shootout, the Dubai ATP 500. But by then the game's short offseason and a bout of shingles had taken a toll. Later came an elbow injury. And the losses kept piling up even as his serve -- often a vulnerability -- kept misbehaving.

The most significant number in the Murray-Djokovic rivalry at this point in the year is "one." That's the number of times they have faced each other in 2017. These two aren't playing clash of the titans. They're playing hide-and-seek.

"I definitely think I need to be concerned about today," Murray told reporters after losing to Coric. "It's not always the worst thing losing a match, but it's sometimes the manner of how you lose the match which can be concerning or disappointing. ... I made a lot of unforced errors, and I also didn't find any way to make it a more competitive match, so that's the most disappointing thing for me."

Djokovic senses Murray's weakness. The other day in Madrid, Djokovic entertained reporters with some thoughts on how hard it was to be on top as well as how well Nadal and Federer are playing. Not to mention how "hungry" the young players are.

"You always feel like you're being chased," Djokovic said.

Djokovic is not in the top position anymore but pointed out that he wanted to get back there. Of course, he has problems of his own, even if a hangover isn't one of them.