Andy Murray's campaign to reach the ATP Tour Finals at the O2 Arena has taken a major step forward over the past fortnight, with the Scot sealing success at the Shenzhen Open before this week bowing out in the semifinals of the China Open in Beijing.
Murray overcame U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic 6-1 6-4 on Friday to set up the encounter with Djokovic, playing one of his best matches of what has been a challenging year as he recovers from back surgery.
However, despite giving Djokovic a tough time over two sets, the 2013 Wimbledon champion could do nothing to prevent himself falling to a 6-4 6-3 defeat to his long-term rival.
For all of Murray's recent improvement—his title last week was his first of the calendar year—Djokovic's consistent standards are to where the Scot must still aspire.
Losing to the Serb is no disgrace, and, indeed, Djokovic was relentless in Beijing where he has never lost a match in 23 outings. Winning 71 percent of his service points and saving all but one of five break points conceded, he gave his opponent few opportunities to claw a way back into the encounter.
Murray must aspire to be similarly decisive when it comes to big encounters, as he had been doing before his injury concerns.
Speaking on Sky Sports, respected pundit Peter Fleming said of the Scot's performance:
Of course there were moments from Murray because he’s a great player but moments aren’t good enough against Djokovic. You have to do it time after time.
Djokovic’s defences were impregnable and once he stepped up to the ball he put Murray off balance and Murray didn’t have the answer. It meant the Scot had to try and go for the line. He had to hit perfect shots and ultimately he wasn’t able to do it.
One of the most telling differences between the two players came in their ability to win points on second serve—a continual problem for Murray for some time.
Djokovic, an exemplary returner, punished the Scot by winning 67 percent of points on his opponent's second serve. Murray, on the other hand, won just seven of 27 such points on the Djokovic serve.
Given similar records on their first service attempt and a slightly better percentage of accurate first serves from Murray, it is clear that it is a weakness in the Scot's game that Djokovic was able to exploit. The ATP World Tour website also partly attributed Murray's exit to Grigor Dimitrov to a similar failure to match his opponent's performance on second-serve points.
Over the course of 2014, Murray's second-serve-points-won percentage lies at just 54 percent. By means of comparison, both Rafael Nadal and Djokovic lie just narrowly higher at 56 percent. His performance on this occasion was well below his usual standard and those of his biggest rivals. It has been a theme of big matches against the game's better returners for a while now.
Indeed, during the spell in 2012 and 2013 when he really moved up a gear to win major titles, his improvement was partly attributed to an improved second serve by the likes of former star Greg Rusedski, as featured on The Telegraph.
Djokovic is so precise and so powerful with his groundstrokes that he can seize on the slightest drop in service level. He forces players to try to hit lines with his aggressive play, and it is therefore little surprise that Murray made 22 unforced errors on the day.
The Scot must not get too downhearted, though, having made big strides toward his former levels over the past two weeks only to encounter an opponent at the top of his game.
Murray moves on to the Shanghai Rolex Masters this week in a final attempt to earn the ranking points required to move into the top eight places in the tour standings to earn a place at the finals.
Another strong performance should be enough, and there is still time for the Scot to work on his game in time off ahead of his next outing in Paris at the end of the month. Improve he must, but there are positive signs that the Andy Murray is now returning.
*All statistics quoted are taken from ATPWorldTour.com unless otherwise stated.