Novak Djokovic hung tough in the second set to maintain a remarkable 23-0 record of winning finals after taking the first set as he claimed the Sony Ericsson Open for the third time with a 6-1, 7-6 victory over Andy Murray on Sunday.
In a match played in near 90-degree heat, Djokovic would not have relished a third set against his longtime friend and rival under any circumstances, but the fact that Murray had received two walkovers in earlier rounds made it particularly pertinent. To get to the final match, Djokovic had spent 18 hours and 11 minutes on court, while Murray needed only seven hours and 20 minutes to get here. That disparity is almost unheard of as it's unlikely a player gets a free pass twice in one tournament.
But the flip side is a possible loss of rhythm which comes from having too many days off. Before the match, Murray had no idea whether that would be a negative factor for him. But on Sunday, it was.
It is unusual for Murray to make so many unforced errors, especially on his reliable backhand. This atypical problem made life much easier for Djokovic. Given the score line, the stats on winners and errors are remarkably close. Djokovic had 19 winners to Murray's 16 while the Scot made one more unforced error than his opponent at 39 to 38. But 21 came off Murray's backhand, which is normally his banker.
However, even more than his low first service percentage of 52, it was Murray's inability to take advantage of the Serb's relatively weak second serves that cost him any chance of forcing a third set -- a goal that was within sight when he came within two points of it three times on the Djokovic serve at 6-5.
But great first serves and then another error from Murray allowed the world No. 1 to force a tiebreak. From the moment Murray revealed everything which had been wrong with his game by netting a simple backhand on the first point to hand his opponent an immediate mini-break, Djokovic dominated the breaker and closed it out 7-4.
Murray agreed that the return of serve was his problem. "I didn't return well today, which is normally one of the best parts of my game," he said. "That was the difference in my opinion. Maybe that was because I hadn't played for a few days. I have no idea. But that's the only thing that surprised me."
The pattern of the match was set in the fourth game, which lasted 12 sweltering minutes. Murray led 40-15 on his serve, but after Djokovic had won a 24 stroke rally, Murray struggled to hold on and, after five deuces, two backhand errors gave the Serb a morale-boosting first break. Once he had saved Murray's only break point of the match in the next game off the back of a huge first serve, he was on his way.
Murray managed to make a match of it in the second, but Djokovic always had enough in his arsenal to come up with the big winner when needed.
So Djokovic retains the title he won here last year and continues to look like the best player in the world. He was never going to be able to repeat his extraordinary start to 2011 which saw him get to the semifinal of the French Open in June before losing a match, but he is making a good job of continuing to come through on the big occasions.
Even though he lost to Murray in the semifinal in Dubai and then to John Isner in a semi at Indian Wells, Djokovic already has the Australian Open in his pocket and now this -- a title regarded as the fifth or sixth biggest in the world.
Perhaps, the best description of Djokovic is complete player. There is no aspect of his game which invites attack. He might not move quite as gracefully as Roger Federer, but he is still one of the best movers to have played the game. His serve might not be as big as Isner's, but it gets the job done in tight situations, especially when he serves at 70 percent, which he did on Sunday. Plus, off the ground as well as at the net he is just plain solid.
Murray knows how to beat Djokovic as a 9-5 record shows -- they were 5-5 on hard courts before Sunday -- but you have to stand in, step up and execute. Too often the Scot's attempts to do that in this encounter, which lasted two hours and 18 minutes, ended with the ball in the net or over the baseline. As an indication of how well Murray was able to move him around during numerous strength sapping rallies of more than 20 strokes, most of the Serb's errors came when he put the ball wide.
But Djokovic was justified in saying he thought he had played from beginning to end. "I'm playing at the peak of my form, and I'm playing the best tennis I have ever played," he said. "So I have to use that the best that I can. The competition is getting stronger. Everyone is so professional nowadays. But I'm ready for it."
Djokovic admitted that Murray had come very close to winning the second set. "It could have gone either way," Djokovic said. "There were a lot of long rallies, and they were tough conditions. But I came up with the big serves when I needed them."
Next stop for Djokovic -- Monte Carlo in two weeks. The Principality is his adopted home, and he is especially keen to do well there having missed the event last year. But it will be a challenge. Rafael Nadal has won the title seven consecutive times and, providing his knee has recovered, he will not be relinquishing his title easily. Not even against Djokovic at his best.