AO Collateral Damage: Djokeray/Murkovic

Who’s dismissal at the 2017 Australian Open was more surprising, Murrays’s or Djokovic’s?

Murray. The guy was on fumes as much as he ran into an all-court magician (M.Zverev) in the fourth round. Who can ever really know what exactly accounts for these victories and upsets as there are a combination of factors. Which is why when a fangirl in all her glory says court speed made all the difference, or when an elementary school intellect shares his theory of AO doping, you can laugh out loud and wish these slaps a speedy recovery. That is not commentary; that’s politics.

We can talk here about at least two reasons for Murray’s earlier-than-expected exit: Murray looked out of gas; and he was made to look limited in his tennis.

His run at the end of 2016 to catch and castrate the Serb’s invincibility was taxing, absolutely. You saw him barely get through his group in London though he did make quick work of Novak in the final. Pretty demoralizing all the way around for Novak, which I murray-djokwrote about, at length (see: Djokollapse – losing the WTF and another year-end #1 is big-time damage). Murray had a career defining run there, so he more or less limped into Melbourne after getting beat pretty dramatically in the Doha final by Novak that, again, didn’t give Novak the best look, despite people’s predictable premature celebratory pee party.

Indeed, Murray’s 2016 run was memorable, but let me qualify this accomplishment and make another suggestion. The absence of Federer helped his Scottish Majesty and foreshadowed Melbourne. Despite the incredible consistency and strength of his game overall, he was playing a tour without Novak and Roger. We have already talked about the absence of Novak (throughout much of the later part of the season), but Roger’s absence is equally as consequential.

Granted, I wrote of how Andy would have handled Roger at WB had the Swiss beaten Raonic in the SF. Murray was rolling and Roger was reeling. Despite the win over Cilic (coming from 2 sets down), Federer was just hanging-on, having missed a bunch of tourney play already, including Indian Wells, Miami, and Roland Garros, getting beaten at Halle by A.Zverev, and not really being tested at WB. Andy most likely takes Roger at Wimbledon though even that would have been an interesting final.

However, Murray did not have to deal with the Maestro. Interesting H2H numbers, for what it’s worth: it’s Fed 14-11 overall, but 7-3 in their last 10 meetings. We recall that 2015 WB SF where Federer looked balletic (superficially) and clinical. In other words, the Swiss has had, especially recently, Murray’s number. And as we all know, match-ups are huge.

The foreshadow, the meaning, that came to fruition in Melbourne was that Roger was back to full strength, I would argue; had Murray beaten Zverev, don’t for a minute think Murray was a lock to get by Federer. Sure, Murray was strong last summer, surging after his FO loss to Novak, claiming his second WB, really playing well, which he took to Rio and on to London. But we’re here to, again, argue that the AO result is more realistic than it is circus. That Murray’s AO result is not so surprising.

Murray was on fumes and has always been more trustworthy than transcendental in his championship form. He made a virtual solo run (that was both impressive and admirable) to the top in 2016.

All this to say: Murray has his work cut-out for him going into March and April and beyond. Djokovic will be coming, and Federer and Nadal have been re-introduced to the waning ATP tour.

Djokovic. What is driving his game at this point?

Murray’s diagnosis is fatigue and tennis quality (I’ll come back to this in a moment). He pushed himself in order to catch and surpass Djokovic; and his tennis let him down, as has often been the case throughout his career.

But what of Djokovic? The burn-out was 2016. What happened in Melbourne? The popular opinion was he’d cleared the room in the off-season, organized his box and supposedly resumed his HOF tennis clinic. I’m afraid this wasn’t the case. He was beaten in 2R by a tour journeyman, losing in the way we saw him go down throughout the summer and fall.

I remember a reader here asking what I thought was going to happen when Djokovic’s level starts to drop. I pointed to the big points. That’s what will go, since that’s what happens to just about everyone, in sport and in life. He would start to crack in those do-or-die points. We know this practically defines Novak’s genius. Sure, his court coverage is all-time, his BH a potent weapon, but the guy’s ability to play those critical points better than his opponent has been the real difference.

He doesn’t overwhelm his opponent as much as he outlasts him, wears-out his nerves and his serve.

That sharpness has been missing. I have pinned this on a career fatigue; he looks almost beaten during a match. But Federer and Nadal have shown that a little time “off,” a little valley may be required before one begins to ascend those future peaks.

Therefore, I suggest we wait on Djokeray and accept that they have a lot of work to do since the ATP forecast has gotten a little more interesting since January.

This brings us to my little opportunity to entertain the freshman in the room talking about another factor that may have upended Djokoray or Murkovic (whatever you want to call this AO mystery that really isn’t a mystery): court speed.

I actually won’t say much about this other than to even raise this issue speaks to the limits of both of these players’ games. Why, if you are a super-duper love disciple of one of these athletes, would you even touch this topic?

As always, my post is running long, so let me put a quick, distinctive wrap on this affront to common sense. If you have this burning (love or hate) bias for an athlete, don’t draw everyone’s attention to that player’s greatest flaw. If you write about these issues, I recommend you not put it in your title, which could potentially confuse your reader: is this guy being sarcastic?

The rise of Nadal at the AO is another fallacy in this ridiculous fast court theory (like the steroid theory). I’m almost done. . .

As one of my esteemed readers pointed-out (I did some similar verification), the courts were allegedly slowed in the early 2000s (This means Roger has been part of this reduced speed tennis). People have pointed-out, with statistical accuracy, that all four surfaces (AO, FO, WB and USO) have more similar speed and bounce than the reverse. Indeed, we’re talking surface homogenization.

Was the fact that 3 of the 4 AO semi-finalists were OHBH (Fed, Stan, Grigor) or that 3 of 4 were  decent at the net (Fed, Grigor, Rafa) indications of the court speed? Was the Mischa Zverev run evidence?

I certainly enjoyed listening to Johnny Mac call the Zverev v Murray match. He beamed about how this is the way to play these kinds of power brokers, using a brilliant display of all-court tennis with angelic S&V to disrupt the less-developed base-line game.

You’re going to argue that the conditions changed a bit and your player’s limited game couldn’t handle the more historically true conditions? While other players seemingly made the reads and necessary adjustments?

The argument is that Djokovic and Murray couldn’t handle the speed?

Speed is one of the reasons why Wimbledon and the U.S. Open are the most prestigious majors. Don’t just take it from me. London and NYC might have something to do with it. But the graceful grass and slick hard courts of the two venues play a big role in the esteemed heritage of those tournaments. Might have something to do with the fact that speed showcases quality.

Murray and Djokovic couldn’t handle the speed?

As entertaining as this is, I’m going to shut this down. Murkovic will be fine. The reason those two fell in Melbourne had much more to do with form and momentum. . . than court speed.

And another hint: If you want to ride that “court speed” bus, know that you sound like a Fedfan or an old-schooler. I know you think you’re qualifying his 18th major, or complaining about the tour tainting the court surface, but in reality you’re underscoring the limits of Djokovic and Murray, highlighting the fact that baseline grinders can’t handle the quip and ingenuity of all-court tennis. Not a good look.

I’ll be back to put a little commentary to Montpellier and Sofia.

6 comments

  1. What a nice AO wrap up, just in time to go along with my morning coffee! The fangirls will never learn, and as you point out, if Djokovic can’t take the speed (lol!) then what does that say about Nadal who looked like he was ready to dominate again if it weren’t for the Grandmaster?

    Going by past encounters, Fedal seem to be the best all-Court (for this era of court homogenization). Federer because he glides around the Court like a supernatural being, and Nadal who in his prime was faster than prime Murkovic, who is to say that the return of the kings isn’t happening this year? A physically and mentally healthy Nadal is going to ravage everything in front of him on clay. I am making another prediction for the upcoming FO, unless Nadal fractures his hips and both wrists, Djokovic will not defend his title.

    1. I will be penning a letter to Nadal one of these days. 😀 After burying him on this blog (I still stand by much of it), the guy reminded me (made me eat crow) of how genius he is on the court. And his net play is anything but ordinary. His appearance in the AO final is a huge testament to his tennis and a shotgun blast to the face of the fast court crowd. And Wawrinka is a better “fast courter” than Djokeray? Lol.

      Can’t wait to see how this season unfolds. I like your prediction, but we’ll have plenty of opportunity to see this develop. Let’s hope everyone gets and remains injury free. I already have my IW SF tickets; the desert should be strong indication of form for the contenders.

      Bring on the blood.

      1. Good stuff Matt, I certainly envy you with that Indian Wells SF spot! 😛

        I’ve been at Halle two times one quarter finale and one finale in 2011 and 2014 which is much closer to where I live, so I’ve had the pleasure of watching the Grandmaster live, I hope some great match materializes at the SF you will be attending! 🙂

      2. Talking about watching it live, 2010 Toronto master was the first tournament I had chance to watch actions in live. Big 4 in action for SF couldn’t ask any better…Only regret is I was i understood the games better back then…I was just started to following up tennis is late 2009 so more of spectator watching big names rather than appreciating their skills that time. Later visited there in 2014 too but only for earlier rounds.. Last year visited Cincy final week-end..Dimitrov-Clic was epic where as Murray routines Milos.. Already booked for this year Cincy again, Hoping to catching up big4 guys again…

  2. A quality article as always, Matt.

    I agree that Murray’s exit surprised me the most, as the most in-form player compared to Djokovic (who is probably in vacation/injured/waiting a second child – at any case not at his best). I have already noted that a dip in Murray’s level was due, but I expect him to recover soon. Both Andy and Novak are not ideal all-court players and, as I already noted, older players who adapted better in conditions survived the 2017 Oz. Of course, considering a weakness of a player “foul play”, is an effective way of declaring yourself a blinded fanatic, and in the end diminishing the player’s talent since a great player remains great (in varying degrees) at any circumstances.

    Not so sure about the hypothetical Federer-Murray match in Melbourne: Federer was coming of a 5-set match and would have to beat the best defender on Tour; his diminished stamina in this age could be seriously tested although he has the strategic advantage over Murray.

    You were spot-on regarding Djokovic decline (I think we discussed about it during his reign); I expected a physical breakdown but you pointed correctly on his clutch moments-already commented about it in your “2017…Here we go” season preview.

    I agree that the first two Masters events should give us a hint about the top duo’s form and that Djokovic may not defend FO too. But a Fedal return would be rather surprising, considering Federer’s age and Nadal’s unwillingness to implement strategies to his game which get him to the net (maybe next year when his uncle won’t be traveling with him, he will try something new).

    Keep up the good work Matt.

What say you?