Time waits for no man — not even Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal — and increasingly it looks like the rivalry between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic has become the pre-eminent one in tennis.
At a stage of the year falling awkwardly between the US Open and the climax of the season in London — when players are usually tired, injured or complaining — Murray and Djokovic threw everything at each other in Sunday’s final of the Shanghai Masters.
Even their rackets, one violently smashed by each player, were sacrificed in the course of another thrilling encounter that was not far from the equal of their epic at Flushing Meadows last month that saw Murray break his Grand Slam duck.
Fury: Murray smashes his racket after missing a point against Djokovic in the second set tiebreak
D'oh: Murray reacts after missing a point as the match slipped away against his Serbian opponent
This was no calendar space-filler, and he came out on the wrong end of the result as a 5-7, 7-6, 6-3 loser against the unyielding Serb (right), who emphatically showed that it is going to be anything but an easy march towards the world No 1 position for Murray following his New York triumph.
Aggressive tennis of the highest quality saw Djokovic win after three hours and 21 minutes, thus becoming the man to end the 25-year-old Scot’s run of victories in China.
He had won this event in the last two years.
Novak was at it too! Djokovic smashed his racket several times on the court in a fit of frustration
Federer has much to prove now in the final European indoor events coming up, the environment in which he is normally so strong, and it is expected he will line up against Murray in Basle, Paris and the Barclays ATP World Finals at the O2 Arena.
Nadal is still unable to name a date when he will resume practising, let alone playing tournaments, and he will know there are formidable challenges afoot when he is finally able to return.
The one thing that should concern Murray is that for his second defeat running, as in his Japan Open loss to Milos Raonic, he had match points that could not be claimed.
What a year: But Murray couldn't add the Shanghai crown to his Olympic gold medal and US Open titles
Eyes on the prize: Murray hits a backhand against Djokovic in the Shanghai Masters final on Sunday
The outcome was that he was unable to secure the kind of ranking points that will be necessary to achieve his ambition of being ranked in the top position next year.
‘It was one, two centimetres between winning and losing,’ he said afterwards. ‘It was so close. I’ve lost tougher matches than that before and I’m sure I will recover. Both of us played some unbelievable tennis.’
Indeed they did, and there was even a 20-minute tiebreak that came close to matching the one played out at Flushing Meadows. This time Djokovic took it 13-11, saving four match points mostly due to his own stunning strokeplay rather than Murray faltering.
Moment to savour: Djokovic celebrates after beating Murray in three spectacular sets
The Briton was more to blame for the weak second serve that was attacked when he had another match point earlier at 5-4 in the second. That came just after Djokovic had saved himself at 30-0 down with a remarkable ‘tweener’ (between-the-legs shot) that kept the rally going.
Murray, who has had a heavy cold this week, looked weary towards the end and had no response when he was broken for 2-3 in the decider. Thus he was denied a victory which, following the Olympics and US Open, could have justified his fans claiming he was the best player in the world.
Both men now return to Europe for the briefest of breaks before the last few tournaments that are likely to have an element of ‘last man standing’ about them.
Shanghai noon: The world Nos 2 and 3 duel in China in front of a packed house
Credit: Daily Mail