It was with relief as much as elation that, after three hours and 39 minutes, Novak Djokovic raised his tired arms in celebration in the Rod Laver Arena, four-set conqueror of Andy Murray and Australian Open champion for the fifth time.
The Serb owns Melbourne and, for now (perhaps longer), he owns Murray. He won 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-0, but, of the 24 matches and five Grand Slam deciders they have now played against each other over nearly nine years, few can have featured as much gold and dross as this final, idiocy following excellence like a lost puppy.
Murray blew more important points than Djokovic and, at the end, he was beating himself up as much as Djokovic was from the other end, spent and disappointed that the some times brilliant tennis he had rediscovered over the past fortnight deserted him at precisely the wrong time.
“Murray has played a wonderful tennis match,” his occasional adviser and ESPN commentator Darren Cahill said, “and doesn’t deserve a 6-0 set.”
Perhaps, but that is slightly disrespectful to the man who inflicted it on him. There could be no denying Djokovic was a worthy winner, albeit in a match that swung about wildly in quality, compelling rallies ending in 89 unforced errors and rackets banged, added to the tension and occasionally magnificent sense of theatre until a limp, one-sided denouement.
“Novak’s got an absolutely incredible record here and thoroughly deserved to win,” Murray said. “I had amazing support again here and it’s been probably my most consistent Grand Slam throughout my career, but I just wasn’t able to win. My team and I put in a lot of hard work to get back in this position. I’m a little bit closer than I was a few months ago.”
His coach, Amélie Mauresmo, looked close to tears as he spoke.
In some ways, they were statistically close. Djokovic took nine of 16 break opportunities, Murray five of 12; the winner hit eight aces, the loser 10; Djokovic had fewer unforced errors, 40, than Murray, but only by nine. And when the total points were tallied, he had outscored the Scot by 136-118.
But this was a match where the numbers were almost secondary to the narrative unfolding before us. Djokovic, fell twice in the first set, hurting his right thumb and then hobbling on an ankle that looked ready at one point to totally collapse – although Murray did not look convinced, especially when the Serb recovered so well each time.
The most elastic man in sport briefly moved with all the certainty of a drunk on rollerskates, only to be sprinting like a spring lamb within a few minutes. Drama queens, eh?
There was also a brief invasion by a couple of demonstrators during a changeover in the second set which, in the context of a crazy night, faded from memory as quickly as it arrived.
Before a ball was struck, another blow was struck: by Kim Sears on behalf of all normal people who weren’t remotely offended by her swearing at Tomas Berdych on Thursday night. There she proudly stood in her fiance’s box wearing a T-shirt which spelled it out in delicious sarcasm: Parental Advisory: Explicit Content.
She was rattled by the original furore (while Murray, a natural insurrectionist, was not) so this was some statement. It did not take long for photographers to pick up on the message and Kim was a video star again.
When the players got down to work on a cool, cloudy night, Djokovic looked ominously good, Murray tentative. Previously between them, only four times has the player losing the first set recovered to win the match and that player was Djokovic. Murray had never won against him after dropping the opening set. So when the world No 1 stroked his 14th winner into the ad corner for 4-1, it looked grim for Murray, although the contest was closer than that disparity suggests.
Murray has 10 career wins against opponents ranked No 1 at the time but Djokovic, whose game he has been analysing since they were 12 years old, looked a different player to the wretched imitation who struggled for three-and-a-half hours to beat an equally unimpressive Stan Wawrinka in the second semi-final on Friday night.
“How do you do it? How!” Murray screamed at himself after another injudicious drop shot gave Djokovic three break points in the eighth game. His inner rage can only be imagined when he double-faulted to hand Djokovic a 5-3 lead he did not have to work that hard for.
Djokovic looked strong again, holding for a two-set lead, and breaking early in the third. Murray’s head dropped as his discipline deserted him, and there was an air of resignation about his work, the fight seeming less relevant with each passing mistake.
Boris Becker got to his feet in what looked like premature celebration when Djokovic broke again for 3-0 and what had been a contest until midway through the third set turned into a 28-minute drubbing.
Murray should have won the first set, did eke out a result in the second, competed hard for much of the third and was about as far behind Djokovic in the fourth as it is possible to be without leaving the stadium.
He will be desperately unhappy with the result and only mildly encouraged by some of his tennis. Still, he is fit, healthy and competitive again at the highest level.