James Lawton: Andy Murray has only one real problem – the utter brilliance of Novak Djokovic
White feathers can mean whatever you want of them. They can be a symbol of cowardice or the arrival of a guardian angel. Unfortunately for Andy Murray, the one that fluttered down into the Rod Laver Arena served neither purpose. All it did was briefly distract him from the growing reality that Novak Djokovic had finally stumbled upon the ruthless best of himself.
After flicking away the feather, Murray won just one more of his meagre three points in the second set tie-break that announced, as brutally as a fusillade of mortar shells, that the world's best player was again on the ferocious march.
Murray has such aspirations of his own and there is no reason for either him or his flinty old coach Ivan Lendl to despair of them.
This, unquestionably was the Murray he promised to be while winning, from the grasp of yesterday's conqueror, the US Open last September and in Friday's semi-final hounding of the great Roger Federer further into the margins of the world he once dominated so profoundly.
The real trouble was not a failure of nerve, a blistered foot or a brief eruption of some of his old highly charged self-destructive emotion that plagued his hopes for so long. It was Djokovic, raw, insatiable and, ultimately, masterful Djokovic.
When that figure re-emerged after an edgily introspective first set, Murray was obliged to resign himself to a little longer in the shadow of the man who is threatening, more purposefully than ever, to bring still another dimension to arguably the greatest epoch tennis has ever known.
With Federer deposed and Rafael Nadal sidelined, Murray could hardly have tackled the challenge presented by Djokovic more promisingly. Though his serve appeared the more vulnerable, the range of his shots and the certainty of his movement suggested that he might well deliver a stunning one-two in winning major tournaments.
Djokovic gleaned just two points from the tie-break at the end of the first set, in which his serve had looked notably impregnable even by his own awesome standards. But it was the rest of his game that had encouraged Murray.
It had a degree of rare uncertainty. Oddly for a man operating in the theatre of action and on the surface he most likes, that had already brought him three of his five Grand Slams, Djokovic seemed to be trying too hard.
An absurd proposition, you might have thought, while considering a man who so routinely draws the life out of the opposition. But there was Murray flourishing with some considerable panache. And there was Djokovic casting dark looks after losing his footing.
It was then that Djokovic did something utterly remarkable, something which provided the first clear evidence that once again he would find a way to win. Under the severest pressure, he slipped on to his back, a situation which has caused at least a million players to beat their rackets in frustration. Djokovic played a perfect lob, got to his feet and won the point with a shot that stretched belief.
Before the white feather, we had seen a lightning bolt. The rest, very quickly, become a fait accompli.
If this depressed Murray, it shouldn't have done. He has suffered such rites of passage before and there should be no lasting pain or discouragement in one conducted by someone capable of mustering the astonishing force of a Djokovic suddenly at peace with himself.
In last year's Wimbledon final Murray threw himself at Federer and built an early advantage. When he was repulsed, some feared for the strength of his new self-belief under the stern tutelage of Lendl, but Federer had been required to ransack his game for perhaps a final statement about his ability to win the great tournaments. A few days ago Murray was issuing a manifesto of his own. It spoke of an ability to compete with great optimism at the highest level of the game – one which in terms of power and speed and touch we may never have seen before.
For most of the first two hours of yesterday's three-hour, 40-minute battle, Murray's declaration was excitingly intact. It was not the match we may have dreamt of, and which provoked some of us into the rash speculation that it might touch the levels of the 2008 Wimbledon final between Nadal and Federer, but there was more than enough evidence that both Djokovic and Murray were capable of hitting such heights.
Murray said that he wanted this final to be painful because that would be the measure of its competitive quality. Afterwards, he was emphatic that his blisters were a passing inconvenience and that if he had other physical problems all of them might have been negotiable against a lesser man.
It was a gracious concession of something that had become increasingly evident to an engrossed audience and not least such great champions as Andre Agassi and Boris Becker. The former German wunderkind said that Djokovic had separated himself from the rest of tennis, as the very best of champions do, and that the challenge for Murray was to work harder than ever to narrow the gap.
For a while yesterday it was narrow enough to permit any outcome. By the end it was a gulf of some formidable magnitude. It had been established not only by exceptional talent but a will of quite withering intensity. Before beating Murray, Djokovic was first required to conquer himself. This he did so formidably that Murray, like a beaten fighter, could only lean back against the ropes and absorb his fate.
But then, of course, he had known quite a number that were considerably worse. Two years ago he was dismantled by Djokovic on this same stage in three cruel sets. He raged and then went away in disarray. Yesterday he was in much less need of rehabilitation – and still less a well-meant white feather.