Sometimes sports isn't as complicated as that mountain of stat sheets, strategic maneuvers or tactical nuances might suggest. Sometimes, it's just about running harder, for longer, with greater determination and discipline than an opponent. Sometimes sports is just about being a superior athlete.
Novak Djokovic demonstrated that essential truth in the Australian Open final Sunday, earning an Open era-record fifth title Down Under with a persuasive and often intriguing win over four-time finalist Andy Murray. Djokovic won it 7-6 (5), 6-7(4), 6-3, 6-0. The match lasted 3 hours, 39 minutes, but Murray elapsed long before the time did.
This was both a terrible and a great advertisement for best-of finals. Awful, because at the end of the second set, which took two hours and 32 minutes to resolve, it seemed this would be a borderline inhumane, six-hour struggle. Terrific, because it allowed one man to prove that he's got a physical and emotional fifth gear that his rival could not match. And that's a big part of what athletics is all about.
Furthermore, what made the situation considerably worse for Murray was that he spent much of his own precious energy venting. Djokovic used every trick in the book -- most of it unconsciously or incidentally, because nobody is quite that clever -- to frustrate and keep Murray off balance, to heap further fuel on his emotional fire.
Djokovic himself described the win this way in his postmatch interview: "In winning those [tough] matches, you need to be able to find that inner strength, mental, physical, emotional, especially when you're down in the finals and when you're playing a top rival."
As a result of tapping that "inner strength," Djokovic now joins an elite list of eight-time Grand Slam champions, and an extremely short list of five-time Australian Open champs. (The only other guy on that one is Roy Emerson, whose career bridged the amateur and Open eras.) Furthermore, Djokovic's win triggered a spirited, spontaneous discussion of what chance he has of running down Rafael Nadal and/or Roger Federer in the all-time Grand Slam title derby.
Federer has a record 17, and at age 33, it's not certain he'll add to the tally. Nadal is just 28 years old, and while he already has 14 titles, the toll of his punishing baseline style has been heavy. Djokovic is 27, and many camp followers believe he has set himself up nicely for another boom year -- one that may remind us of that magical Djokovic of 2011. Djokovic himself seems primed for it. As he said:
"I try to stay on the right path and committed to this sport in every possible way that I have had in the last couple of years, and [will] try to use this prime time of my career really where I'm playing and feeling the best at 27. This is why I play the sport, you know, to win big titles."
Djokovic is the very picture of health, he's happily married and a new dad, his coaching/support situation is squared away and he's sloughed off the rap that he's lost his mojo in major finals. Last year, he was rudely shown the exit at this event in the quarterfinals by Stan Wawrinka (who went on to win). This year, he avenged himself on Wawrinka and battered Murray. Both matches ended with a 6-0 set for Djokovic -- just in case anyone had questions.
Let's also remember that before Sunday, Djokovic had lost as many finals (seven) as he'd won. Of the seven finals he lost, all but two were to Federer and Nadal; the exceptions were losses to Murray. Federer and Nadal are somewhat diminished threats, and if Sunday was any indication, Djokovic holds a powerful upper hand over Murray. (In addition to leading the rivalry in Grand Slam finals 3-2, he bumped his all-matches lead to a substantial 16-8.)
Now it's on to the dominant quest in Djokovic's career, a win at the French Open. It's the feat that would earn him a career Grand Slam and put him on a truly equal footing with his contemporaries. Djokovic has been to the quarterfinals or better at Roland Garros eight times, with two losses to Nadal in the championship match. The annual theme at the French Open is likely to be the familiar one, and easily summed up: Nadal will lose again at Roland Garros -- someday. And Djokovic has already proved he can win at Wimbledon and the US Open.
In addition to his familiar rivals, Djokovic will also have to contend with upstarts like Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori and others. None of them, though, have anything like Murray's record. Murray is a stable mate of Djokovic's in tennis' Big Four, which makes this result in Melbourne that much more sobering.
Although this final was absorbing and filled with high-quality rallies, Murray's collapse from 3-all and set-point up was comprehensive. It all started when Djokovic appeared to get physically wobbly, perhaps with cramps, early in the set.
Murray told reporters he was most disappointed by the fact he allowed Djokovic's apparent physical struggles in the early part of the third set to "distract" him. And he said of Djokovic's play from 3-all on: "He was just ripping everything. Once he got up a break, he just loosened up and was just going for his shots. I couldn't recover."
That's all well and good. But distractions, cramps and that famous Djokovic fifth gear aside, it was also true that Djokovic won 62 percent (34 of 55) of the second serves he initiated, while Murray converted an anemic 34 percent (14 of 41) of his second-serve opportunities. Djokovic's average second serve speed was 98 mph, a full 15 mph faster than Murray's.
Stats tend to bear out larger truths and realities, and that certainly seems to be the case here. Djokovic is a superior athlete, which is why he's still running -- toward a prominent place in the history books.