ANALYSIS Fine margins prove the difference as Serb world No.1 retains title, writes Hugh MacDonald
IT was, as Andy Murray had predicted, brutal. There were no tears from the Scot in the aftermath of his defeat by Novak Djokovic in the Rod Laver Arena, but there will be pain. The worst of it will not come from his blistered feet, a hamstring injury in the left thigh or the rigours of having played for the best part of eight hours in two matches.
It will be experienced this morning, though, when he reflects on the moments when he had the momentum in the Australian Open.
With the first set in the bag, having just served to love in the first game of the second, the 25-year-old world No.3 won three successive points on the serve of Novak Djokovic.
The world No.1 was in a nasty spot. He extricated himself with all the athleticism, will and talent at his command to win in four sets. But Murray will ask questions of himself. It is what losers do. It is why some of them, most notably Murray, become winners.
The player from Dunblane had been scarred by previous defeats in grand slam finals. This one will hurt, though victory in New York takes always the worst of the sting.
Murray's reaction to a major defeat is always to come back stronger and he will rest this morning physically while his mind will be racing about what separated him from the world No.1.
The missed break points will be regretted, the moment in the second set tiebreak when he stopped to field a feather before serving a double fault will be experienced again with a shake of his head, and he will minutely examine every tactical decision.
He will know he could have won but he will accept that finally he was beaten by the better man on the day. Murray will not look back in either anger or resignation but as a way to plot a course forward.
This was Murray's fifth defeat in grand slam finals and he will be condemned in some quarters for this record, and for losing his composure at times yesterday, particularly with the umpire after the second-set tiebreak. The more frequent and similar eruptions by Djokovic will be forgotten.
The act of winning leads to almost universal forgiveness.
The triumphant player is seen as pumping himself up, the loser is regarded as being mentally unfocused.
There were more relevant incidents in the match than the Serb's bashing of his racket or Murray's verbal outbursts. The most important of these is that Djokovic has proven invincible in Melbourne over a period of years. This was his third consecutive title, his fourth in all, in Australia. He justified his favouritism by playing better than Murray over the match and was only fragile during the first tiebreak and in the opening period of the second set.
If Murray had struck then, perhaps all would have been different. But perhaps not. Djokovic, after all, came back from two sets down to Murray in New York, though he ultimately lost in the fifth.
The Scot will be more concerned with how he can improve his game. He is playing at a level that makes this a matter of tweaks rather than major reconstruction. He will be encouraged by his progress in a year under Ivan Lendl.
Murray is more confident, more aggressive, than he has ever been. His first serve is a formidable weapon and he is improving his delivery of it, with a 60% rate a decent return yesterday. Lendl has made a significant improvement to his client's forehand. Murray has always been an excellent returner, has the best backhand in the game, and his movement is astonishing.
So where can he improve?
He will work on his second serve. He won 46% of points on it against Djokovic, while the Serb won 66% of points on his second serve. Murray was also about 15mph on average behind Djokovic on second-serve speed. Pace, of course, is not everything on a serve but the figures suggest Murray has work to do to match Djokovic in this area.
The enduring lesson of Murray's personal history is that he will not be disillusioned by defeat but irked and provoked by it. His recent record includes three consecutive grand slam finals. It will be pointed out that he has lost two of them but this is a run that suggests there is more to come from Murray.
His dismissal of Roger Federer in the semi-finals in Melbourne was a watershed for the Scot. It may also be a significant defeat for the greatest player of all time.
Murray's serene progress to the final suggests he has cause to look forward to further occasions such as yesterday. The grand slam roadshow now moves to Paris where the Scot has never gone beyond the semi-finals and where there are legitimate doubts over the potency of Rafael Nadal, the King of Clay, who has still to return from injury.
Murray's first objective will be to go one step further and his constant preoccupation will be to finds ways to disconcert the remarkable Djokovic. His painful reflections will be of feathers and missed break points. His positive thoughts will centre on a day at Flushing Meadows when the Serb could not find the winning answer.
All is not lost, though it may feel that way as Murray nurses his wounds this morning.