A delighted Novak Djokovic knew he made a big Australian Open statement when he toppled world No.1 Andy Murray 6-3 5-7 6-4 to retain the Qatar Open title.
Djokovic was apologetic after a ball he slammed in anger hit a women in the stands, incurring the first of two warnings from the umpire for incidents as his emotions spilled over.
But it was a mark of the intensity in the tight, dramatic, high-class first clash between the world’s two best players since Murray won their season-ending climax at the ATP World Tour finals in London in November.
Djokovic and Murray now travel to Melbourne to prepare for the Australian Open starting next week where the stakes will ratchet up for two men with starkly contrasting emotional histories at Melbourne Park.
Defending champion Djokovic will be attempting to add to his Open era record six Australian Open titles while Murray will try to break through for a maiden crown after being five runner-up times – four of them (2011, 13, 15, 16) to his Serbian rival.
“Best scenario I could ask for for beginning of the season,” Djokovic said after the Qatar clash on Saturday night which ended a 28-match, five-tournament winning streak by Murray, who had deposed him as No.1.
“Playing all five matches in this tournament and then three hours against No.1 of the world, (my) biggest rival, and winning in a thrilling marathon match is something that definitely can serve as a positive incentive for what’s coming up in Australia.
“It’s only the beginning of the season, so we had a little laugh at the net about it. We both felt like if every match we’re going to play against each other is going to be this way this season, we’re going to have a fun time.
“Playing against Andy, somehow it feels like playing the mirror image of (me) because we have very similar styles of game.
“I can’t recall out of the 35-plus matches how many were kind of one-sided. Most of the matches we play it’s always going down to the very last few points to decide the winner.”
Murray didn’t want to read too much into the result at his first tournament of the 2017 season.
“Physically it was a good test to start the year, and I did good there,” said the Scot.
“Obviously I am disappointed not to win tonight, but I played pretty good the last couple of the matches.
“I still think I have a chance of winning the Australian Open after tonight. I don’t think that changes.”
The final showcased the best of men’s tennis for two hours, 54 minutes. Djokovic needed four match points – three in the second set and one in the third – to prevail.
Djokovic’s frustration got the better of him twice, causing umpire Carlos Bernardes to hand him two warnings, including the loss of a point on the second warning.
That came when Djokovic smashed his racquet in frustration at 40-30 to end the 11th game of the second set prematurely.
The first warning came in the sixth game of the first set. Annoyed at losing a point, Djokovic angrily smacked a ball to the ground that flew into the stands and hit a woman.
“I definitely didn’t want to hit the ball at anybody,” Djokovic said. “Just happened. Fortunate not to get a bigger fine. I have to be more careful I guess. I accept that I made a mistake.”