The match turned quickly and inexorably in Novak Djokovic’s favor. Like the sun that heated Stadium Court into a purple griddle, Djokovic could not be blocked or blunted.
In the third and deciding set of the Miami Open championship Sunday, he first broke Andy Murray’s serve. He softened up his opponent with three mouth-watering lobs and ripped him open with a slashing forehand that Murray dumped into the net.
Then Djokovic broke Murray’s will. At the end of another long game that had Murray berating himself with Scottish curses, the players exchanged delicate shots and scrambled to the ball, only to have Djokovic flick the final one just out of Murray’s reach.
Djokovic captured his sixth break point to go ahead 3-0. From there, the whole thing sped downhill. Within 10 minutes it was a love set and over. Djokovic won his fifth Miami Open title by a score of 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-0. He defeated Murray for the seventh time in a row.
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As Djokovic held his trophy in a flurry of orange confetti, the scene crystallized what has become all too apparent in men’s tennis: Djokovic has separated himself from Murray, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It’s no longer the Big Four. It’s No. 1 Djokovic and the Other Three.
He’s put himself on a different plane, if not planet.
Djokovic, winner of the Australian Open and the grueling back-to-back Indian Wells-Miami double, looks poised to win his first French Open and add to his Grand Slam collection with another banner year.
It’s tough to find a flaw in his game, his psyche, his fitness. His personal life seems heavenly, too, as he speaks in glowing terms of his wife and 5-month-old son. Most people would be exhausted by life with a baby. Djokovic says he has been refreshed.
Federer, 33, hasn’t won a Grand Slam since 2012. Nadal is still finding his form and confidence after another layoff for illness and injury. Murray fell to 8-18 against Djokovic, including his 6-2, 6-3 loss in the Indian Wells semifinal and his 7-6 (7-5), 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-0 loss in the Australian Open final.
In Melbourne, too, Murray could not get over the Djokovic hump and faded badly in the final set.
Djokovic is a momentum thief, squashing any surge his opponent can muster with his own overpowering waves of energy.
It used to be the opposite. The young Djokovic was notorious for retiring from matches. He was frail of body and mind.
Now, he is the master of the deciding set. Third or fifth, he knows how to screw his courage to the sticking point when it counts most.
So it was Sunday. Djokovic appeared vulnerable after losing the second set. On the changeover, he abruptly snatched a towel out of the hands of a startled ball boy. He directed harsh words toward his coach, Boris Becker, and his support team in the stands. He was assessed a code violation for unsportsmanlike conduct.
“I was yelling in frustration,” he said.
But far from unraveling, Djokovic banished the doubt in his mind, gave himself an “inner talk” and went out and won his 10th final in a row.
“We talk a lot about the way I need to handle my emotions on the court and how I need to direct my thoughts and prepare myself for fighting and for battling and winning these trophies,” he said, referring to mentor Becker.
He has made himself into a lean machine of an athlete by adhering to a gluten-free diet and an exacting strength-and-conditioning regimen. While he and Murray both looked depleted at the end of the second set by their long, tenses rallies under what they both described as brutal conditions, it was Djokovic who found his second wind as Murray’s legs got heavier and heavier.
“I managed to, again, rely on the energy supply that I have in my legs and my fitness to hold on,” he said. “Tennis requires the right balance between the physical preparation and mental strength and calmness and self-belief. You kind of holistically need to approach it to be at your top.”
Murray, 27, makes his home here in the Brickell area about three months of the year. He practices on Stadium Court at the Tennis Center at Crandon Park. If he had any edge, it was his acclimation to the heat and humidity and his intimate knowledge of the surface — as if he was a Celtic who knew the nooks and bumps of Boston Garden’s parquet floor.
But Murray, like Djokovic, struggled to serve on the sunny side of the court. He admitted he was the more fatigued player in the final set and his footwork lagged. He also conceded that Djokovic is simply too good.
“I feel like I’ve been able to hang with him, but just not quite for long enough, unfortunately,” he said. “I need to try to work out why that is.”
There’s no clear answer against Djokovic, 27, who easily controlled the first-set tiebreaker. He consistently outthinks and outworks his opponents. Like eight-time Miami Open champion Serena Williams, he doesn’t make mistakes on crucial points.
The sublime Serb gave fans a sampling of his superiority throughout the 30th edition of Miami’s tennis showcase. Some waved Serbian flags and shouted his nickname: “Nole!” Others marveled at his cat-like movement and shotmaking skill.
Djokovic won three Grand Slams in 2011. He owns a total of eight. Based on his performance here, 2015 could be his most spectacular year ever.