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There's no shame in losing in this era of tennis greatness

By Kevin Garside

This is how Cristiano Ronaldo must feel at the Ballon d'Or; asked to turn up to football's annual beauty pageant knowing Lionel Messi's name is on the pot.

It is hardly the fault of Ronaldo, a game changer of historic proportions himself, that his time on earth has coincided with a player who makes us question what we think we have seen.

Indeed, it is a testament to the deep attachment he has to himself that the Bernabeu Adonis continues to proclaim his own gifts over the diminutive genius from Argentina, who must appear to him as the runt of the Rosario litter.

Once again in Melbourne, there was little for which Andy Murray need reproach himself, despite his own post-match observation that this was the worst match he has played.

Emotion skews the perceptions of the loser every bit as much as it drives the efforts of the winner.

Murray might have started better, of course, but managed in the second and third sets at least to hint at the idea of vulnerability in the machine-like efficiency of the game's pre-eminent force. Props to you for that, Andy, as the urban dictionary might say.

Such is the hold Djokovic has on tennis at this juncture it is a job to properly assess Murray's place in the scheme of things.

Shuffle the eras about a bit and he might have come out with half a dozen grand slam victories, placing him among the game's greats.

To have contested nine finals in the epoch of Djokovic, Roger Federer, who makes a hefty case to be regarded as the finest player of all time, and Rafael Nadal, untouchable on clay at his peak and, had his knees not crumbled, one who might have added to his grand slam bullion, is not to be dismissed lightly.

To come up short in this company, then, does not condemn him; rather it demonstrates the extraordinary scale of the talent across the net.

Leading 5-4 in the second set, Murray had Djokovic at 15-30 on the Serb's serve. Were the forehand errors he made the result of a failure of nerve on his part or the consequence of the iron will of a player who does not accept the possibility of defeat?

In the next game, Murray had three points to lead 6-5 and force Djokovic at least to serve to stay in the set. When you fight back from 0-40 to break it is not about technique so much as attitude.

Djokovic has an incredible 32 per cent strike rate from this position. The heart is screaming, the legs are gone, yet he wins the game in almost a third of cases.

This led to speculation on the excellent radio commentary on BBC5 Live that Djokovic may not be human, which seemed fair enough.

Having lost the first set in a simpering 30 minutes, Murray stretched the greatest player of the day for a full 80 minutes in the second, but only stretched.

The third went to a tie-break without ever relieving us of the sense of inevitability about the result.

That's an 11th grand slam title for the Serb, drawing him level with Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver. Only four have won more.

The one hole in his résumé is Paris, though having appeared in three of the past four finals, you can see how he might correct that anomaly in June to raise the prospect of a calendar slam.

If Djokovic were to continue an incredible run that has seen him clean up in five of the past seven grand slams, he would be only two short of Federer's record haul of 17 major victories at the year's end.

With Federer, a beaten semi-finalist here and Nadal, a first-round victim, sliding inexorably down their performance curves in relation to him, and Murray increasingly unable to hit the required peak he has reached twice in his career, Djokovic could well end up history's man.

That was the elixir that fate held out in the women's final to Serena Williams, who in defeat demonstrated the dignity required of a champion and paid Angelique Kerber the compliment of giving every drop of that indefatigable competitive spirit.

At 34 and having suffered successive upsets in grand slam finals - Kerber joining Roberta Vinci as a Serena-slayer - it could be that Williams' opportunity to join Steffi Graf on 22 major singles titles has gone. On the other hand, who are we to question the prospects of a player the like of which women's tennis has never seen?

Meanwhile, Murray returns home to impending fatherhood.

The disappointment of defeat will not endure long in the euphoria that awaits. And the altered state coming his way as a parent might work its alchemy on his game, providing a subconscious edge that takes him into Djokovic territory, allowing him to prevail in those crucial moments that all too often have gone against him.

Belfast Telegraph


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