Tennis: Murray slam? You must be Djoking

By James Lawton

One day, Andy Murray may have to settle for less - accept that, for all the gifts heaped upon him, the vital one is still missing.

That day has not yet arrived and nor is it likely to for a year or so, but at 24 he surely knows the clock is running hard.

The sound of its ticking was thunderous when the world's best player, Novak Djokovic, blowing like an outclassed handicapper at one point, then producing shots worthy of the presence of the great Rod "Rocket" Laver, reclaimed the Australian Open semifinal from Murray as though dismissing some impertinent interloper.

Of course, Murray is a whole lot more than that, as he showed when he also played tennis which brought a smile of pleasure to the face of the old master from Queensland.

But even had he been given another four hours, 50 minutes - the length of Friday night's five-set epic - it is hard to believe he would have found that missing asset.

It is the one with which Djokovic has astounded tennis for more than a year now while sweeping away the No 1 ranking of Rafael Nadal with six victories in six finals, including Wimbledon and the US Open.

We saw it in the ferocious - OK, mad - gleam that came to the Serb's eyes when he won back three break points in the fifth set, an expression which seemed to say, "You can do anything you like, Andy, however brilliant, however innovative, but you're not going to beat me".

You have to suspect the great Nadal will receive the same message somewhere in the decisive phase of tonight's final. It is not so much a statement of overbearing talent but untouchable conviction.

Djokovic persuaded himself some time ago that there is no player on this planet who can consistently match his range of shots while under the hammer - or his ability to reinvent himself at regular intervals in the most strenuous competition.

The worry for Murray's new and apparently influential coach, Ivan Lendl, is that his charge did everything but deliver the coup de grace. It is something that you cannot teach. It is something of the blood that is not to be found even in the most superior coaching manual.

But then perhaps the great Czech champion, a winner of eight grand slam titles and several times hauntingly close to winning Wimbledon, will help uncover it somewhere between now and that moment when Murray is forced to abandon the search.

You have to give Lendl - a sternly impassive observer until a wintry smile crossed his face when Murray appeared to be striking out for victory in the deciding set - something of a chance because there were times when he did indeed seem like the author of a small miracle.

That, you have to say, was a reasonable way of describing the improvement in Murray since he delivered his most feeble grand slam final performance in Melbourne last year. We saw a little more of that Murray in the first set, when he repeatedly failed to go on the front foot and Djokovic was allowed to dominate all the crucial points.

But then he began to play, quite sublimely at times. Inevitably, there were moments that recalled some of last year's performance but none of them suggested a player who was about to lose control of himself. The flashpoints of anger and frustration this time did not destroy him.

Often they spurred him to passages of play which left Djokovic rattled, even briefly disconsolate. Murray's shot-making, which can be a thing of wonder even when he is calling every available demon into his head, has rarely been so ravishing.

Last year, he spluttered and raged and talked himself into a dismal defeat. This time, he kept playing a game in which many have identified potential greatness.

Most persistent was the idea that this might indeed be the year when Murray is gathering himself for the most crucial examination of his ability to break into the mighty axis of Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer.

He has, certainly, never been so close to scoring one of those victories which can change a career, even a life.

The presence of a man of Lendl's authority, someone with a withering gaze and zero tolerance for the soft landing ground of easy excuses, is surely a key factor in such a possibility. No doubt he has already told Murray to forget all the larding praise.

This, in the end, was another failure. Of course there have been many but never before did they carry such hope of redemption.

The vital gift may have gone missing again when it mattered most but there was, this time, at least a scent of its presence. Also, the encouraging suspicion that Lendl, old stoneface, might just track it down.

DJOKOVIC OVERCAME his breathing problems and a "physical crisis" to move into his third straight grand slam final. Standing between Djokovic and a record shared by some of the greatest players of all time will be No2-ranked Nadal, a man he beat in six tournament finals in 2011.

Despite appearing tired and sore from the second set, Djokovic rallied to beat fourth-seeded Murray 6-3 3-6 6-7 (4) 6-1 7-5 in a rematch of the 2011 final at Melbourne Park.

After wasting a chance to serve out the match at 5-3 in the fifth and letting Murray back into the contest, Djokovic cashed in his first match point when the Scottish player missed a forehand after four hours, 50 minutes.

"You have to find strength in those moments and energy, and that keeps you going," Djokovic said. "I think we both went through a physical crisis. You know, him at the fourth set, me all the way through the second and midway through the third. It was a very even match throughout, from the first to the last point."

Djokovic dropped on to his back after clinching victory, fully laid out on the court. He got up and shook hands with Murray, before jogging back out on to the court like a boxer, dropping to his knees and crossing himself.

It was after 2.30am on Saturday (NZT) when finally he got up again and pumped his arms triumphantly.

"Andy deserves the credit to come back from 2-5 down. He was fighting. I was fighting," Djokovic said. "Not many words that can describe the feeling of the match. It was a physical match ... it was one of the best matches I played. Emotionally and mentally, it was equally hard."

It was a bitter setback for Murray but he was confident he has already improved in the few weeks since hiring Lendl as coach.

"Yeah, it was tough at the end because, you know, obviously you come back, then you get close to breaking," he said. "To lose, yeah, it's tough. But a different player, a different attitude to this time last year. I'm proud of the way I fought."

Djokovic is now aiming to be only the fifth man in the Open era started in 1968 to win three straight majors - only Rod Laver, Pete Sampras, Federer and Nadal have achieved it before him, with only Laver going on to complete the Grand Slam by winning all four majors in a season.

Djokovic's 70-6 win-loss record in 2011 included those six wins over Nadal in finals - including Wimbledon and the US Open. Nadal has had an extra day to prepare for the final but will be conscious of his own performance three years ago when he beat Fernando Verdasco in a 5-hour, 14-minute semifinal and had 24 hours less to prepare for a final against Federer that he eventually won.

On Friday night, both Djokovic and Murray had form dips - but Djokovic's were more obvious. He led by a set and a break before Murray started coming back at him. Then Djokovic started walking gingerly and appeared to be struggling for breath just as he had been in his straight sets quarter-final win over No5-ranked David Ferrer. At one point, he pointed to his nose and seemed to indicate to his support group that he was having trouble breathing.

He stayed in the points, despite Murray scrambling and trying to get him involved in long rallies.

He put his breathing problems down to allergies and said he'd seen a doctor for it. The

- Independent, (additional reporting by AP)

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