By Shane Thomas
With the final tennis major of the year taking place in four days time, Andy Murray had an ideal lead-in for the US Open by winning the Cincinnati Masters last weekend. The last time he won in Cincinnati, he reached the final at Flushing Meadows. But what is more encouraging is that he defeated World No. 1, Novak Djokovic to walk off with what is one of the most unusual trophies I've ever seen in sport (look at the picture at the top of this post to see what I mean).
In an era that contains both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, many have overlooked the fact that in 2011, Djokovic has been the man. This has been his year, and then some.
After last year's US Open, I wrote about how Djokovic had shown discernible signs of maturity after losing in the final to Nadal. Leading Serbia to win their first ever Davis Cup at the tail-end of the season was a springboard to usurp the Spaniard at the top of the men's game. He won the first Grand Slam of the year at the Australian Open, battering & bullying Murray into submission, and hasn't looked back.
He went on one of the most astonishing unbeaten streaks in the history of the sport. He won his next 43 matches in succession, a record that was only one match short of Ivan Lendl's 44 match streak in 1981/82 and three short of Guillermo Vilas's 46 matches in 1977. From November 2010 to June 2011, Djokovic did not lose a single match.
As children, many future tennis players practice by repeatedly hitting a tennis ball against a wall. The repetition of this exercise aids concentration and technique. However, you never want to hit the ball too hard when doing this, as the harder you hit a ball off a wall, the faster it will come back to you.
Well, playing Djokovic is like playing against a wall. No matter how well you're playing, no matter what type of shot you hit, be it power, slice or spin, when you're up against Nole, that ball keeps on coming back. While Federer and Nadal have been at the top of the tree in men's tennis for the better part of a decade, if you were constructing a tennis player, he'd be like Djokovic. The Serb ticks every box; speed, endurance, athleticism, shot power and accuracy, and in the past year, he's added the intangible but pivotal qualities of belief, and a winning mentality to his armoury. The way he defeated Nadal in this year's Wimbledon final showed how the balance of power in the game has shifted towards Djokovic. At the time of writing his win/loss record is 57/2.
However, his achievements this year have been something of a double-edged sword. While the high standard of Nole's physical conditioning is without question, he has already played more matches than most players have in a season. He has repeatedly played less than 100% fit, but kept playing because he kept winning. He joked that he wouldn't mind losing a few matches to give him a chance to rest his ailing limbs.
Well last Sunday, the decision was made for him. He walked into the final against Murray with an injured shoulder, and Britain's No. 1 took full advantage, taking the first set 6-4, and taking Djokovic's game apart in the process. By the time Murray was 3-0 up in the second set, Djokovic made the pragmatic call to retire hurt. While it would have affronted his professional pride, it would have been folly to exacerbate an injury in a match that was as good as lost, especially with the US Open fast approaching. There are bigger, and more important battles to be fought.
Murray knows this as much as anyone. Winning Masters series events are nice, but tennis is all about the four Grand Slams. Any pundit worth their salt knows that Murray has the game to win in New York - indeed John McEnroe predicted at the start of 2010 that this year's US Open would be when Murray breaks his Grand Slam duck. There's no doubt that he likes the environs of Flushing Meadows, winning the boys' title as a 17 year old, and reaching the men's final back in 2008. Murray's game is best suited to hard courts, and while he will not be favourite to triumph next week, everyone knows that he is a genuine contender to lift the title in a little over two weeks time.
As for Djokovic, he remains to man to beat, but the first cracks have shown in a wall that had looked hitherto indestructible. There's no doubt that the exertions of this year are taking their toll, and how he fares will be dependent on him holding the foundations together for just a little longer.
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