Andy Murray's missed opportunity will sting for some time

MELBOURNE, Australia -- You wait 10 years for Novak Djokovic to be out of your way -- and then someone else comes along to ruin your title hopes.

It's not like Andy Murray was rubbing his hands in glee when Djokovic, the man who'd beaten him in four of his five losses in the Australian Open final, went out in the second round to Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan.

But with Djokovic gone, the world No. 1 must have felt like this was his year. And he will wonder how Mischa Zverev, the 50th-ranked German who had lost in the first round in 13 of his 17 previous Grand Slam events, had the ability and temerity to upset him 7-5, 5-7, 6-2, 6-4 in Sunday's fourth-round match.

For all of Murray's rationalizing in the days to come, there is bound to be a small part of him that wonders whether he is destined ever to win a tournament he loves so much. Although there were big obstacles still to overcome, with no Djokovic to worry about, the Scot would have hoped to at least make the final.

"Did I miss an opportunity? I don't know," a deflated Murray said in his news conference afterward. "I mean, every year you come is a different chance, different opportunity. Even had I got through this match, [Kei] Nishikori or Roger [Federer] are waiting. Stan [Wawrinka]'s still in.

"There are certainly no guarantees that even if I got through today's match, I would have gone further. Yeah, it's disappointing to lose, [but] I don't feel like this is any more of an opportunity than other years."

It's not like Murray played badly, but he should have won the first set, when he served for it at 5-3, and after taking the second, he let the momentum slip early in the third. But he was under pressure throughout against the serve-and-volley game of Zverev, and the German's ability to take returns on the rise. His ability to come up with some outrageous volleys at crucial times frustrated Murray all night.

With a healthy 1,715-point lead at the top of the rankings, Murray doesn't have to worry about losing the No. 1 spot for a while, and the chances are that after a short break, he will be rejuvenated and motivated to be successful in Indian Wells and Miami.

In total, Zverev came to the net 118 times, winning 65 of those points and keeping Murray constantly on the back foot. It was a masterclass in attacking play, and it drew respect from someone who knows net play, fellow left-hander John McEnroe. "You did it old-school," McEnroe said on the ESPN broadcast.

Murray said it was the quality of Zverev's attacking forays that made life so difficult for him.

"It's the shots he was coming up with when he did come forward," Murray said. "He came up with some great pickups, reflex volleys, especially at the end of the match when it was tight. That was tough because I was hitting some good shots, chasing some good balls down.

"Just wasn't meant to be. He served very well when he needed to, especially when he was behind in games. He deserved to win because he played great when he was down, and also in the important moments. The first two sets, I had chances. I was up a break I think in both of them pretty early, [but] couldn't convert my opportunities."

Murray will be back next year to try again. But if he doesn't ever triumph in Melbourne, he'll look back at this match, more than any other, as the one that got away.