Another year, another loss in the Australian Open final – Andy Murray must be wondering if it’s ever going to happen for him “down under”. He may never have a better chance than he did yesterday. When Murray broke serve to lead 2-0 at the start of the third set the momentum appeared to be with him. There was little to choose between the players as Murray and Djokovic shared the opening two sets. Then, just when Murray appeared to be getting on top, and the BBC commentators were starting to make him favourite – he suffered what Pat Cash referred to as a “mental meltdown”. Djokovic played some great tennis in winning 12 of the next 13 games to seal victory and a fifth Australian Open title. But in truth, Murray simply faded away. This was not a physical failing but a psychological one. Murray has since admitted to being distracted by Djokovic, who appeared to be having some minor injury concerns. It is a vivid reminder of the importance of concentration and the price of losing focus when competing against the very best.
Momentum is one of the most over-used phrases in sport but that’s because the toughest competitors are able to take advantage in two ways – they are able to reverse negative momentum, when things are going wrong, and press home the advantage when getting on top. Djokovic was able to do both yesterday. When things were going against him, he was clearly frustrated, but he was able to find a way back and reverse the situation quickly. The frustration was channelled into increased effort and focus. When Murray was faced with the same problem, there was no response – other than petulance and bad language. His concentration was broken and the games just raced by. No attempt to try something different; to speed-up or slow-down play. My opinion is that Murray let Djokovic “off the hook”. Sure, Djokovic was frustrated and angry with himself at various points during the match, but he was able to regroup and refocus. Once on top, there is a killer instinct about the best – and I would put modern players such as Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic above the rest when it comes to finishing off opponents once ahead. There is a consistency of performance, an intense focus, and the ability to make decisions very quickly when under-pressure that can change a game, which sets these players apart. These same players are never beaten until the last point is won – they have all demonstrated the ability to come from behind to win when not at their best.
There is no doubt about the ability that Andy Murray has – he is a former Wimbledon Champion – but if he is to add to his major titles then he needs to deal with the crucial moments more effectively. You can’t afford to get so negative that it costs you three or four games – that’s a gift for someone as good as Djokovic. Very few players, with the exception of John McEnroe, ever played better tennis when angry and frustrated. It’s about personal responsibility and emotional control. We might argue that Djokovic is simply a better player than Murray given his Grand Slam record, but the history of sport in general, and tennis in particular is littered with upsets. A strong mind will often be the difference when all other things (strength, stamina, speed, skills etc.) are relatively equal. Perhaps Andy Murray needs a chat with Dr Steve Peters (or members of MTOUGH), in order to get his inner chimp back under control.