LONDON -- The slimmest of margins have decided most of this year's matches between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. And you can add another one to the list after Wednesday's clash at the ATP World Tour Finals.
Djokovic rallied to defeat Murray 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 in the second round of pool play at the eight-player, season-ending championships. The Serb improved to 2-0 and closed in on a semifinal berth, while the Scot fell to 1-1 with one match remaining in Group A.
The two came into the match having split six meetings this year. They each won a five-set showdown at a Grand Slam tournament, with Djokovic surviving in the Australian Open semifinals and Murray prevailing in the U.S. Open final. Djokovic also took the Miami final in straight sets and saved match points to win Shanghai last month, while Murray ended Djokovic's gold-medal hopes at the Olympics and silenced talk of another winning streak of 40-plus matches for his rival by beating Djokovic in the Dubai semifinals in February.
Little has separated these two friends, born just weeks apart, as they've developed games that are mirror images. The stroke production may be vastly different -- Djokovic's whippy strokes contrast with Murray's stiffer style -- but when it comes to their strengths and weaknesses and what they try to do to drive opponents batty, these two own their niche. While all the other matchups between the Big Four feature a contrast of styles, Murray and Djokovic are similarly tuned machines going head-to-head.
"You kind of know a little bit what to expect," Murray said. "I think that's why all the matches, especially the last few, have been so close and decided by a few points.
"But the one thing I would say is, this year I think both of us probably have seen things in each other's games probably improve, and that's why there are a lot of long rallies, and the matches are incredibly tight."
What has separated them in the big picture is consistency. Djokovic is who he is -- No. 1, Australian Open champion, five titles, a 72-12 record and the only man to make three major finals this year -- because of it. Murray is still chasing Djokovic in this respect. Unreliable outside of the Slams and prone to puzzling, out-of-nowhere performances, this is the gap that Murray is seeking to close on the three men who are, regardless of ranking, still ahead of him. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic don't just win the big titles. They win every kind of title and they win them often. Murray just hasn't achieved that level of intensity and focus yet.
The question is, Does it really matter? Murray has done a tremendous job of earning consistent results at the Slams, making the semifinals or better in seven of the last eight. With his breakthrough at the U.S. Open, it would seem he's opened the door for continued success. So what does it matter if he's underperforming outside of the four biggest tournaments?
It matters because of matches like the one he played against Djokovic on Wednesday.
Murray, much like he did against Tomas Berdych in his first match here, was on-form from the start. He broke Djokovic in the first game and held the rest of the way to take the set 6-4. The scoreline betrays just how well Murray played this set. He won all 12 of his first-serve points, 73 percent of his second-serve points (8-of-11) and 75 percent of his second-serve return points (9-of-12). He frustrated Djokovic with his defense and aggressive play, hitting more winners than his opponent and doing major damage with his forehand.
Djokovic was able to turn things around in a second set, but not before producing a vintage Novak Djokovic moment. Facing a break point at 1-1, Djokovic did what he always does when things are looking dire: He went big. He wound up and hit a drive volley that landed square on the line. Novak is as Novak does.
"So what am I going to do about that?" Murray said. "Not much."
That one shot wiped out Murray's chances in the set, as he got loose off the ground and gave Djokovic enough unforced errors to help get him back into the match. Down 30-40 at 2-3, Murray decided to serve and volley and pushed Djokovic's reply long. That break was all Djokovic needed as he won the set 6-3.
"There are decisions you make in matches," Murray said. "If they come off, you get told you're a genius. If you miss them, then you're an idiot. That was just one of those ones that didn't work.
"He served and volleyed on the break point in the game before and hit the back end of the line," Murray added. "I volleyed in the next game and missed by a couple of centimeters."
An early break in the third set allowed Djokovic to build a 3-1 lead, and the way Murray was playing, it looked like that break alone would be more than enough. But after saving a break point in a 10-minute fifth game, Murray fought back to break to even the set at 4-4.
Serving at 5-5, a sloppy Murray put himself in a 15-40 hole. He erased one break point with an ace, but on the other, Djokovic fired a deep return that left Murray falling backward as he tried to hit a forehand, sending it long. Djokovic, however, ran into trouble in trying to serve out the match, falling behind 15-40 himself. The difference in the match? Djokovic saved his break points with some strong serving before finally closing it out when a Murray backhand went long. Djokovic had found a way to hold off Murray despite being outplayed for the better part of the two-hour, 35-minute match.
"I didn't expect anything less than a tough match that went down to the wire and was decided in the last point," Djokovic said.
What makes the difference in those moments? Luck? Skill? Confidence? I suspect it's all those things, but for Djokovic, the King of the Comeback, he says it's experience.
"Calm mind always wins," Djokovic said with a smile. "I guess that's the answer.
"I had to hang in there. That was my mindset, to try to stay out there, win every point that I play. Mentally, don't try to think too far or what happened already or what's going to happen, just be at the present moment. That helped me. That helped me in the Shanghai final. It helped me once again here. I'm once again very happy that I managed to stay calm in those situations."
It's something that Murray is still learning how to master, as he's the one who has matured -- in tennis terms -- later than his No. 1 contemporary. He's made great strides this year in getting more comfortable playing with clear aggression. The nuts and bolts of his game have come together nicely under Ivan Lendl. The next step is sustaining a level of play that puts him in situations where he gains from the experience of these high-pressure matches and learns to come through.
Other thoughts from Day 3 of the World Tour Finals:
• Andy Murray, Captain Obvious: In talking about his friendship and rivalry with Djokovic, Murray made this keen observation, which came as a shock to fans: "On the court, we fight hard. Both of us get annoyed on the court with ourselves, whatnot." That's a loaded "whatnot," Andy.
• Qualification scenario or LSAT problem?: Despite a 2-0 record, Djokovic can't guarantee a spot in the semifinals Wednesday unless Jo-Wilfried Tsonga defeats Berdych in a matchup of players who are 0-1. I'll let Scottish reporter Stuart Fraser explain:
• No one beats David Ferrer 14 times in a row... maybe: Federer on Thursday will play Ferrer, who beat Juan Martin del Potro on Tuesday on the heels of back-to-back titles in Valencia and Paris. Ferrer is 0-13 against Federer, but then again, he's never played Federer with the confidence of a man who just won his first Masters title. It'll be Federer's head-to-head winning streak vs. Ferrer's 11-match winning streak indoors. Could be a good one.
• Number of the day: Courtesy of stats guru Steph Trudel: https://twitter.com/TrudelSteph/status/266181351101849600