KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Before Sunday's final at the Sony Ericsson Open, more than a few folks walking the lush grounds here fancied Andy Murray's chances -- and they weren't just the gang of four British newspapermen who travel the globe chronicling his adventures.
Novak Djokovic, the world No. 1, had looked weary in his previous two matches. He had played 10 matches in three weeks, while No. 4 Murray, who received two golden-ticket walkovers, against Milos Raonic and Rafael Nadal, had played only four. Djokovic appeared sluggish when he had initially failed to serve out his previous matches against David Ferrer and Juan Monaco. Murray? He's been commuting from his condo in downtown Miami and had three full days off since beating Janko Tipsarevic in the quarterfinals. Oh, and Murray had won two of the past three matches between the two, no small item.
It's been 15 months since Djokovic won the 2011 Australian Open and announced himself as the successor to Roger Federer and Nadal as the best tennis player on the planet. Yet, the doubts, though waning significantly, still creep in on occasion.
A piece of advice after the 24-year-old Serb's muscular, 6-1, 7-6 (4) mastery of Murray: Knock it off! Snap out of it! Suspend your disbelief and accept his breathtaking brilliance -- especially when the numbers and every other indicator suggest he's facing an uphill battle. Remember those two match points he saved against Federer at last year's U.S. Open?
Afterward, Djokovic sounded proud of his title run here.
"I didn't drop a set, which is very impressive," he said. "I delivered the best game when I needed to. That's what matters the most, really."
Djokovic is, at heart, a bottom-line guy, at his best in the crucible of a championship match. His only two losses this year, instructively, have come in semifinals -- to Murray in Dubai and John Isner in Indian Wells. He's won 12 of 13 finals over the past two seasons, a retirement to Murray last summer in Cincinnati the only shortcoming. This year's Australian Open should have ended the discussion, when he spent more than 10 hours on the court in beating Murray and Nadal.
To slice it another way, Djokovic has now won 10 of the past 14 majors or ATP World Tour Masters 1000s in which he's played. That's almost silly.
The match turned quickly when Djokovic broke Murray in the fourth game. After rolling through five deuce points, a Murray backhand into the net gave Djokovic his second break opportunity. He grabbed it with a typically Djokovician point, improving his court position incrementally, ball by ball, and finally smashing a fluid overhead that Murray couldn't retrieve. Considering how even their matches are this was a gaping opening.
Djokovic insisted in his postmatch news conference that "there is no gap, really," between himself and the rest of the field. He's wrong, of course. The later stages of the second set underlined what separates Djokovic. Serving to get to the tiebreaker, he won three crucial points -- with a deep forehand, a stout down-the-line forehand winner and an unreturnable 123 mph serve that squarely hit the corner. Murray and Djokovic are surprisingly good friends, considering their station at the top of the game, and their games are quite similar.
But in the tiebreaker, Murray showed us again why he is such a confounding figure. Trailing 2-1, Murray jumped on a gorgeous Djokovic sliced backhand, hitting a subtle drop shot that Djokovic couldn't track down. The crowd roared, but on the next point, the groan was nearly as loud when Murray double-faulted.
Murray understands the metrics of Djokovic's rise to the top as well as anyone.
"He doesn't have many holes in his game," Murray said. "So therefore, when you play against him, it takes normally six, seven, eight shots, like 15-, 16-shot rallies to win a lot of points. You have to be very patient, pick your moments to go for the right shots. That's why he's been so good the last 18 months to a year.
"He was exceptional before then, but he's playing better tennis with more confidence and not making that many errors."
This was Djokovic's third Miami title; the first one, in 2007, was the first really big win for the then 19-year-old. He's also the first player to defend the title here since Federer in 2005-06. That was part of the wide sweet spot of Federer's dominance, and it's the same place Djokovic finds himself these days.
A story posted on Murraysworld.com reported that the Scot dropped "a massive bombshell," saying he intended to skip the clay-court season in order to focus on his preparation for the grass at Wimbledon. Clearly, it was a lark, in the spirit of April Fool's Day, for Murray is also a terrific player on clay. He reached the semifinals at Roland Garros a year ago, his best result ever.
But the story for the next nine weeks is Djokovic's quest to do something that hasn't been done in 43 years. Djokovic has won the past three majors and, with a win at the French Open, would hold all four simultaneously. Sunday, he didn't want to talk about that.
"Just trying to enjoy this," he said when the question came up in his on-court interview.
He'll take a week off, practice for a week and then play his hometown tournament in Monte Carlo.
Clay, he said "demands the most physical effort of all surfaces for the players. You have to be physically fit. Knowing that I had such a great  clay-court season gives me a lot of confidence going in."