Standing on the outside looking in, most people would think that great victories make great players. But standing in the locker room gazing even deeper inwards, many players will tell you that it is brutal losses that turn players into champions.
Novak Djokovic’s rise to the top started not with Davis Cup glory at home in Belgrade in 2010 (although that helped), but with defeat in Paris six months before. Reaching the quarter-finals at Roland Garros, the then world No.3 was upended in five sets by Jurgen Melzer. How could this happen? How could the world No.27, a man who had never troubled Djokovic in the past, win such a match?
That was when the penny dropped; that was when Djokovic began to see exactly what he had to do and how much he had to sacrifice if he wanted to be the best in the world, week in, week out. More focused, more blinkered, more determined than ever, Djokovic began his climb to the top from there.
Now the Serb faces Andy Murray in the Australian Open final and he finds himself staring into a mirror: this tall, Scottish bloke is exactly the same as him.
When Djokovic beat Murray in the semifinals here last year, Scotland’s finest had his Damascene moment. From wondering whether he could ever match the likes of Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer at a major championships, his five-set and almost five-hour defeat to the Serb showed him just how close he was: a gnat’s whisker away from making his breakthrough.
“Last year when I played Novak here, that match was important for the rest of my career,” Murray said. “But it could have been the match that changed things had I come through it. It just took a little bit longer because I lost. But that match was the start of my year and the understanding how close I was if I just improved a few things. Obviously, having won five sets against Roger and Novak in slams is something I hadn’t done before.”
But he has done it now and his four-hour, five-set dismissal of Federer on Friday night showed just how much he has grown as a competitor since winning the US Open title last September. From first ball until last, Murray was composed and determined. He may have made a few errors – and against a champion of Federer’s experience, those errors can turn a match – but he never let his concentration waiver. He played the match on his terms. And his terms were too much for Federer.
Before Murray set foot on court for the US Open final, he had doubted himself: could he really beat Djokovic? Did he have the mental and the physical strength to run Djokovic ragged?
Turning to Lendl, he asked for advice and support. Old Stone Face told him to relax and enjoy the moment. Yeah, right.
“I spoke to Ivan and he just said, ‘just enjoy the match. It’s what you work all your life towards so enjoy it’,” Murray recalled. “And I was like, ‘that’s exactly the problem. I’ve been working 10 years for this and it’s a big moment for me and I don’t know if I’m going to enjoy it’. And he was ‘Oh, why not, come on. You’ve got to try and enjoy it’. And that was kind of how it went.”
It may not have been that enjoyable – five hours of backbreaking work, losing two toenails along the way and aching from head to toe afterwards – but the relief and the joy once it was over was worth every second of the pain. At last, Murray was a Grand Slam champion and nothing would ever be the same again. He had proved himself to his critics, to his rivals and, most importantly of all, to himself. He never need doubt himself again.
Coming into Sunday’s match, Murray is playing his third consecutive Grand Slam final. His peers in the exclusive Gang of Four that has dominated the rankings for the past four years cannot boast a record like that. In the past eight months the Scot has been the most consistent performer at the major events. And he has an Olympic gold medal and that US Open trophy to prove it.
“My results over the past year suggest I have played some of my best tennis in the bigger matches at the Slams and the Olympics,” Murray said. “That’s all you can do, obviously you’re not going to win all of them but more often than not, I’m now giving myself chances to win these events every time I play them.
“That’s the thing that changes from winning big matches. You get used to it and have that extra bit of belief each time you go on the court. What Novak did a couple of years ago set the bar and what Roger and Rafa were doing for five or six years always set the standard. It’s been up to everyone else to catch up and I think I’ve done a good job for the last year or so.”
And should Murray win Sunday then Djokovic has only himself to blame: he should never have beaten the Scot here last year. It is the losses that make the true champions, as Djokovic knows only too well.