Tennis 2016 A Tale of Two Number Ones Novak Djokovic Andy Murray

Djokovic Murray

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2016 was shaping up to be a repeat of the Novak Djokovic No.1 show 2015 until Andy Murray stepped up and put the fight back into men’s tennis. The Tennis Review looks back at 2016’s A Tale of Two Number Ones.

History Repeating

A familiar scene played out in this year’s Australian Open final- Novak Djokovic tearing Andy Murray apart on the Rod Laver Arena. A scene men’s tennis might have preferred to replace with a repeat of Djokovic and Murray’s Australian Open 2012 semi-final, arguably the best match of the 35 they have played. That match would have been just what tennis needed- two of the world’s best going five sets at the business end of the season’s first slam. Instead, Djokovic defeated Murray for the title for the fourth time since 2011, in straight sets, in another tough to watch encounter for neutral fans who admire variety in their tennis skills, but which was compulsory viewing for lovers of modern tennis and the battle of athletic endurance it has become.

If that Australian Open final was a preview of what was to follow in 2016 for men’s tennis, the game was in trouble. While there were elements to admire – the length of some of the rallies, some fine winners, the ability of both men to track down every ball, the mental toughness of Djokovic- the match lacked one of the most basic sporting elements of them all- unpredictability. The Djokovic-Murray rivalry had become so uneven, with Djokovic winning ten of their last eleven matches going into this year’s Melbourne final, going back to Miami 2014, the outcome was never in doubt once Djokovic had weathered Murray’s attempts now and then to take charge .

The Novak Djokovic Show Continues

Taking charge was what Djokovic was all about in men’s tennis since Beijing 2014, and with his sixth Australian Open title under his belt, (tying him with Roy Emerson for all-time, and making him the leader in the Open era), Djokovic continued winning in 2016, taking the Indian Wells-Miami double for a record fourth time.

On his way to the Indian Wells-Miami double, Djokovic beat his next-in-line rivals Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori in the finals, dropping just eight games. Raonic and Nishikori’s inability to impose their games on the world No.1, and these games have taken both players into the top ten, into the business ends of slams, were not so much down to their own failings, but down to Djokovic’s strength- whatever weapons you have to throw at him, he catches them, sends them spinning back, as awkwardly as he can, either back to your strength, weakening it in the process, or striking it right at your Achilles heel, careful to stab it twice, even after you are down.

Murray Struggles

Just as the rest of the tour were unable to inject drama into men’s tennis by challenging the world No.1, the Djokovic-Murray rivalry looked unlikely to deliver as a battle between the top two in the world either as Murray lost to Federico Delbonis in Indian Wells and Grigor Dimitrov in Miami, losing both times after being up a set and a break, and failing to provide a challenge to Djokovic at the top of the rankings.

That lack of consistency in Murray is what had held him back from the top spot throughout his career, but what made these losses worse is that he had finally found the key to his game on clay, putting together some fine results in 2015, and he had a decent history in Indian Wells and Miami, good enough to make the semis and finals, even take the title in Florida.

With Murray still unable to play top class tennis all year round, an assault at No.1 in 2016 looked like it would need Djokovic to either suffer an injury, or suffer a dramatic decline, and Djokovic’s superb conditioning and his desire for a historic first Roland Garros trophy meant things looked bleak for Murray, and for those who were crying out for a contest at the top of the game, the kind Becker-Edberg, McEnroe-Borg, Sampras-Agassi, and Federer-Nadal had delivered.

A Change in fortunes?

The tennis Gods must have ears. Djokovic faltered in his Monte Carlo Opener to Jiri Vesely, a surprise loss considering how far ahead he had looked of the pack.

That Vesely loss was perhaps the first hint of real vulnerability from Djokovic since the Summer of 2014. The Serbian had been close to big defeats, but he had always found a way back. Against Vesely, he looked at times like he could turn things around, but he was nowhere near as sharp as he had been in his previous events, and fell flat when the few chances he had came his way.

With Djokovic, aged 28, an all time Great and in his tennis prime, feats such as winning Indian Wells and Miami back to back and then taking the Monte Carlo title were expected, only to be thwarted by great performances by his rivals in the later stages of events. Djokovic suffering such an upset loss to Vesely, a promising youngster but still far from his potential, sent more than a few whispers around the tennis world, and the word was out- perhaps, just perhaps, Novak Djokovic, the pressure of the approaching Roland Garros mounting, was finally losing his edge.

Madrid, not, historically, Djokovic’s best ATP 1000, was where Djokovic managed to reassert himself, defeating Murray in three sets in the final, ending on a 13 minute final game. In hindsight, that game was also a turning point in both men’s fortunes- Murray, the defending champion, refusing to give in without a battle, (the faster conditions suiting the No.2 better, but the mental side of things still not on his side) , Djokovic pushing himself all the way to keep his domination of his rival going, but his grip on things ever so slightly loosening.

That match perked Murray up and the Scot convincingly beat Djokovic in the Italian Open final, winning 6-3, 6-3. The world No.2 gave a performance tennis fans had been crying out for, playing aggressive, efficient tennis, the only kind good enough to defeat a tired out Djokovic.

That win boosted the Scot’s confidence and he went all the way to the Roland Garros final, the Scot’s first in Paris, and completing his set of Grand Slam finals.

Djokovic peaks.

Djokovic had struggled throughout Roland Garros, most notably in his fourth round match versus Roberto Bautista Agut. Struggling through some tough matches in the early round of slams is not new for Djokovic, though. The Serb saves his best for last, and his Roland Garros final performance ended like most of the Djokovic-Murray encounters, a couple of patches of intrigue followed by Djokovic’s superior stamina and mental strength prevailing, that stamina and mental strength in its final reserves, the last drops spent by Djokovic in his now successful quest for a history making four slams in a row, and the Career Grand Slam.

While Murray had not managed to turn the head to head round when it really mattered, the stage was at least set for a real fight for Number One with Djokovic’s weakest part of the season, and Murray’s strongest, coming up.

Murray Gets High on the Grass

The clay stretch was the last to be seen of Djokovic’s superior stamina and mental strength for 2016. The Serbian’s dream fulfilled in Paris, he was knocked out of the Wimbledon third round by Sam Querrey in the kind of match he had managed to fight through against Anderson a year before in SW19, against Gilles Simon in Melbourne earlier in the year, and Bautista Agut in Paris.

At Wimbledon, something was up with the No.1 however, and on a surface which is faster in the first week than the second and at a stage of a tournament in which Djokovic is the most vulnerable, Querrey took advantage of the weapons he has on grass and beat the defending champion.

The upset certainly got the headlines tennis needed and its shock value was much appreciated, but it did deny tennis fans a Murray-Djokovic contest on Grass. Grass is the surface where Murray has the edge on Djokovic, the Scot’s naturally finer touch and hands earning him the advantage. They have played two big matches on the surface, the Wimbledon 2013 final, and the 2012 Olympics Semi-final, and Murray has won both, and without dropping a set.

How their head to head would be panning out had Grass a greater share in the season’s surfaces, and how that would affect Djokovic’s dominance over Murray is an interesting question, and one which, in 2016, we did not get answered.

Tennis is not about ifs and buts, however, and with Murray playing some of his best ever tennis going into Wimbledon 2016, and Djokovic somewhat spent, if they had met in the final, Murray might have begun his sudden climb to Number One with a very credible victory.

How Murray would handle being a favorite in a slam for the first time, considering his mental struggles in the past, was another interesting question, and one we did get answered. Having Ivan Lendl, a man so integral in his first two slam wins, back in his camp certainly seemed to be helping. The Scot struggled versus Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarters, going five, but he had no problems dismissing Tomas Berdych in the semis, and then slam final debutante Milos Raonic in the final in straights to lift his second Wimbledon title, and third slam overall.

Murray reaches Number One

That Wimbledon win presented tennis with what had been an unlikely scenario back in the Spring- Andy Murray reaching world No.1.

The closest Murray had been before was after winning Wimbledon 2013, and holding the US Open, the Olympics, Queens, Miami, Brisbane, the Australian Open final, and the Shanghai final, giving Murray 9360 points to Djokovic’s 12310. Back then, though, Djokovic was not as dominant as he was in the first quarter of 2016, and Murray was underperforming on clay. There was the chance, nevertheless, that Murray, who had won titles in Cincinnati and Montreal in the past could have challenged for the top ranking, and taken it.

In the early Summer of 2016, when Djokovic’s loss of form began to really show itself, Murray, trailing Djokovic by close to 8000 points,  looked like his first stint at No.1 would have to wait until at least Spring 2017 when he had few points to defend and Djokovic might still be struggling to defend his thousands of points from his early season run. Murray needed a declining Djokovic in order to get the No.1, just as he had needed Federer and Nadal to be out of his way to finally win his first slams. Djokovic, too, had gotten back to No.1 in 2014 when Nadal had declined with injury and Federer had entered his mid 30s. That is a big part of reaching No.1 – the condition of your main rivals for the top spot, and you being in better condition. That condition does not have to be the greatest ever, either- just better than them.

No one though quite predicted just how far Djokovic would fall in the latter stages of the 2016 season, nor just how Murray would so deftly take advantage of that decline to feed his own motivation, most evident in his improvement on his second serve.

While Djokovic slipped from one loss to another, Murray kept rising, winning Olympic Gold, beating an inspired del Potro with all the Olympic goodwill of the crowd behind him, and then mimicking Djokovic’s usual end of year domination win for win as he went on a tear, winning Beijing, Shanghai, Vienna, Paris-Bercy, and the ATP WTF.

Djokovic, meanwhile, was struggling with injury, and other than winning in Toronto, suffered one upset after another. The Serb lost to Wawrinka in the US Open final, to Bautista Agut in Shanghai, and to Marin Cilic in the Paris-Bercy quarters, the loss that paved the way for Murray to take the final step to the top.

With Djokovic out in the Paris-Bercy quarters, Murray now had to win his semi-final to reach world No.1. The Scot, in the end, did not have to hit a ball as his rival Milos Raonic withdrew with injury.

Murray had not had to beat a single top ten player in his Autumn run to Number one, (though the match versus 5th ranked Raonic in the Paris semis would go down as a win) and he did not have to win the final match needed to claim the top spot. That was not the kind of run to have the critics welcoming him arms open. It had them up in arms instead, claiming Murray was a computer No.1 and did not truly deserve to be men’s tennis leading player.

Two Number Ones Battle it Out in the Decider

The ATP finals would put an end to the Number One debate. If you wanted a match which illustrated just why Andy Murray deserved to be No.1, if his actual accumulation of points was not enough, then his three set win over Milos Raonic in the ATP World Tour Semis would be that match.

Murray faced, in Milos Raonic, who would finish the season the world No.3,  a hungry, young opponent with a great serve and a big forehand, two weapons which had gotten the better of Murray in the past. The Scot, though, with his much improved second serve, superior fitness, and greater consistency and match play, strengths not dissimilar to the player he overtook at No.1, prevailed in the longest match played at the ATP World Finals, decided on a final set tiebreaker.

That Murray win over Raonic and Djokovic’s demolition of Kei Nishikori in the semis meant 2016’s ATP World Tour Finals finale was the first time in its 26 year history that the World No.1 ranking had come down to the very last ATP match of the season.

The match was far from a classic, Djokovic hitting just 13 winners to 30 errors as Murray exposed him 6-3, 6-4, yet it did deliver an unpredictable end to the season, and ensured an interesting start to the next one as Murray heads into the Australian Open looking to win a title he has failed to grasp in five championship matches and at which Djokovic is the winningest champion in the Open era.

With the win, Murray edged Djokovic for the year end number spot by 12,410 to 11,780 points. The Scot had won one less slam, but he had done the job a Number One needs to do- racking up more points than anyone else, and in beating five top tenners to claim year end No.1, there could be no questions as to how worthy Murray was heading the ATP rankings.

If numbers were not convincing enough, then the strongest argument for Murray’s worthiness is the very player he so narrowly beat to the Year End Number One spot- Novak Djokovic, a player who has ended the season No.1 four times (2011, 2012, 2014, 2015), has spent a total of 223 weeks at number one (the fifth most in history), and as world No.2 had two slams and four ATP 1000s on his resume. A  player who leads his head to head with Murray 24 -11.

That Murray was able to put an end to his old rival’s dominance over the tour, and himself, tells you all you need to know about whether or not he deserved to be Number one. In a year which told the tale of two Number Ones, one of them the greatest to hold that post in the history of the game, it was Murray who held the year end status, and injected some much needed contest into men’s tennis, turning a leisurely read through the history books into not exactly a page turner, but a book worth staying with until the end.

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Christian Deverille

Christian Deverille is a tennis writer with a diploma in Freelance Sports Writing from the London School of Journalism. He loves all things tennis, most of all the Federer and del Potro forehands.
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