There are opportunities for greatness and then sometimes there are chances that get taken away from you by the brilliance of others.

Andy Murray will leave Melbourne today as a beaten Australian Open finalist for the third time in his career, his 6-7, 7-6, 6-3, 6-2 defeat by world No.1 Novak Djokovic ending his hopes of a second successive grand slam title.

After taking a first set in which Djokovic was arguably the better player, Murray had chances for a 2-0 lead in the second. But once he lost the set on a tiebreak, the momentum switched and the Serb turned the screw, as only he can.

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It was revenge for Djokovic, for his defeat by Murray at the US Open, and also made him the first man since Australian Roy Emerson to win three straight titles in Melbourne, a feat that says it all about his ability to start the season strongly.

It was an obvious disappointment for the Scot, who had breezed through his first five matches and then beaten Roger Federer in the semi-finals, his first win in grand slams over the once all-conquering Swiss.

But when he reflects on the events of the past month, including a 25th career title in Brisbane, he will fly home more content than upset and more convinced than ever that he now belongs on this stage.

"I said before the US Open final I was unbelievably nervous beforehand and was doubting myself a lot," Murray said. "I didn't go on the court today having those doubts. I went on the court and felt pretty calm from the beginning of the match.

"I was obviously still nervous, but I think I just felt more at home in a match like that, on a court like that, when you're playing for a grand slam title. The first few times I played for a grand slam – at the US Open and here – I definitely struggled with it. Now I feel more comfortable."

It will probably help him, too, when he realises that Djokovic has now won four Australian Opens and five of the past nine grand slams, taking his career tally to six, the same as a group that includes Stefan Edberg.

Murray had received support from a number of famous figures, including the prime minister, David Cameron, and Hollywood actor Kevin Spacey, who flew in especially to see Murray in the semi-finals and final.

The first set was strangely cagey, with neither man willing to go for too much. Whether it was strategy or respect for their opponent, it made for chess-like tennis.

So similar are the two men in terms of style that there are very few secrets on the court. It might have been nice to see a bit of serve and volley here and there, or some sneaks to the net, but it was never going to happen.

Instead, they slipped into their regular patterns, probing and testing, forcing and defending, until one of them either hit a winner or broke down the other. It was absorbing, if not dramatic, tennis.

Murray had served beautifully throughout the tournament and opened with a couple of games to love but he was the first to be tested, saving four break points in the sixth game and another in the eighth.

But as often happens when it comes to a tiebreak, the player who was battling throughout the set won it, as Murray took it 7-2.

At 1-0, 0-40, Murray looked in the ascendancy, with Djokovic battling his mind and body, shaking his left knee at times and constantly sharing anguished stares with his support group in the stands.

But Murray missed his chance to tighten the noose, a backhand just wide on the second break point the best opportunity he had. After coming through another deuce game on his next service game, Djokovic began to improve. The Serb started to come forward when he had the opportunity and although Murray continued to hold serve easily, there was an evident change in the Serb's energy levels as the set headed to another tiebreak.

At 2-2 in the tiebreak, Murray stopped to pick up a feather that caught his eye between his first and second serve. Almost inevitably he double faulted and, from there, Djokovic was re-energised.

Having taken the tiebreak 7-3, Djokovic looked fresh while Murray had treatment for a large blister, which seemed to affect his ability to change direction, although he later refused to blame it for his defeat.

The pair continued their unbroken run on serve to 31 games until, at 4-3 in the third set, Murray finally buckled, netting a forehand to give Djokovic the vital break and he served out to move ahead.

Murray continued to fight but Djokovic got a break in the third game of the fourth set, and again two games later, on his way to a 5-1 lead. Murray held to force his opponent to serve out and at 0-30 there was a glimmer of hope.

But Djokovic, so strong and so impressive in the way he improved throughout the match, clinched victory when Murray netted a backhand, to start the celebrations.

Murray saw the funny side when asked about the importance of the feather, saying: "I thought it was a good idea to move it – but maybe it wasn't, because I obviously double faulted."

"At this level it can come down to just a few points here or there. Probably my biggest chance was at the beginning of the second set but I didn't quite get it. When Novak had his chance at the end of the third, he got his."

For his part, Djokovic said he had "served better than in any match against Murray in the past two years" and acknowledged it had come down to just a few points.

"When I was 0-40 against the breeze, he missed a few shots," he said. "I managed to have that crucial hold. After that I felt just mentally a little bit lighter and more confident on the court than I did in the first hour or so."