- Australian Open, Day 12
Djokovic digs deep to deny Murray final spot
Novak Djokovic remained on course for the defence of his Australian Open title after winning a gruelling five-set battle against Andy Murray in Melbourne.
The world No. 1 won the opening set, but was forced to come from behind to claim a 6-3 3-6 6-7(4) 6-1 7-5 victory to set up a final showdown with second seed Rafael Nadal.
Murray, who was bidding to reach his third final in Melbourne, made a nervous start against the world No. 1, and was forced to absorb plenty of early pressure from the Serb. The Scot saved two break points in his opening service game, before forging a break point of his own in the third game, only for Djokovic to unleash a huge second serve to dig himself out of trouble.
A couple of misplaced volleys put Murray under pressure before a costly double fault handed Djokovic the first break, and Murray's unforced error count began to creep up as Djokovic started to impose himself.
Murray often plays his best when under pressure, and the Scot showed impressive anticipation in the next game, racing forward to meet a drop shot and bury a winner. At deuce, Murray's attempted lob was cut out by Djokovic, but the Serb sent his smash into the net. Determined to make the most of his chance, Murray dictated the ensuing rally, forcing his opponent behind the baseline to break straight back.
However, the Scot was punished for taken his eye off the ball, and all his hard work was undone immediately as Djokovic broke to love, before comfortably holding serve to take a 5-2 lead. Murray held serve to force his opponent to serve for the set, but Djokovic coolly wrapped up a 1-0 advantage before grabbing an early break in the second.
Djokovic looked in danger of running away with the match, but in finding himself a set and a break down, Murray appeared to relax and began to find his range. After Djokovic failed to bury a smash, Murray's return wrongfooted his opponent, and he showed impressive determination to break back after a topsy-turvy fourth game lasting over 11 minutes.
Sensing his opponent was beginning to tire Murray pressed on, and after a purposeful service hold, two superb forehand winners put Djokovic on the back foot to allow the Scot to grab a second successive break, outlasting Djokovic in a 30-shot rally.
But just as in the opening set, Murray immediately relinquished his advantage, and his fifth double fault of the match allowed Djokovic back in. This time Murray did not crumble, digging deep and breaking for a third successive time to take the chance to serve out to level the match.
Facing two break points, Murray produced his fifth ace to save the first, before he was rewarded for his patient play and crisp hitting as he waited for Djokovic to make the mistake. Another unforced error from the Serb gifted Murray set point, and he made no mistake as he wrapped up the set with an ace.
Murray continued to pile pressure on Djokovic's serve, and was disappointed to see five break points pass him by as Djokovic hung on. Undeterred, he maintained his focus to hold serve before grabbing the break in the third game.
However, for the third successive set, Murray was punished as Djokovic broke straight back, and the momentum began to swing in the Serb's favour. With the clock approaching three hours and the fatigue beginning to set in, the match began to lack the vigour of the opening stages, but the hitting remained relentless as neither player wanted to surrender any advantage.
Serving to stay in the third set, Murray saved three set points - the first with an ace, the second with a cross-court forehand and the third with a backhand winner - before demonstrating superb defence to snatch a break.
Once again he failed to maintain his advantage, and a series of unforced errors allowed Djokovic to break straight back and force a third-set tiebreak. Murray, who has often been criticised for playing too defensively, took the game to Djokovic, and when he wrong-footed his rival to bury a forehand winner he was rewarded with three set points. Having saved three of his own from Djokovic earlier in the set, Murray needed just two to wrap up the third set and edge closer to a place in the final.
Any hopes of Murray easing to victory were immediately dashed though as three unforced errors gifted Djokovic the break, and the Serb wasted little time in powering to a 4-0 lead. Murray stemmed the flood to hold serve and avoid the bagel, but Djokovic broke for a third time in the set to power through the fourth in just 25 minutes.
With the match into a decisive fifth set, and with both players visibly fatigued, Djokovic had the advantage of serving first. And after a morale-boosting love service hold, he finally made the breakthrough, Murray cracking as the Serb moved within two games of victory.
Another love service game left Murray serving to stay in the match, and he held on before digging deep to break Djokovic to love to keep his hopes of making the final alive. In a remarkable turnaround of fortune, Murray had a renewed spring in his step, while Djokovic looked rooted to the spot as a winner flew past.
But Murray was unable to sustain his charge, and Djokovic demonstrated why he is the world No. 1, pulling one more break out of the bag for a hard-earned victory after nearly five hours on court.