Last July at Wimbledon, when a handful of feathers fell to centre court during a Victoria Azarenka match, one observer explained that they had descended because an “owl up in the rafters who had been driven to a sexual frenzy by Victoria’s howls.” It was all a jolly aside of no consequence whatsoever.

But, years from now, we suspect that, as cold North Sea winds howl across the Scottish moors, a weathered ex-athlete may recall a singular white feather that drifted down on a Melbourne court.

You see, Scot Andy Murray was locked into a brutal battle with his fiercest rival, the No. 1 player in the world and the two-time defending Australian Open champion,  Novak Djokovic. And both players, seemingly in their primes, had much in common. Born within 24 days of each other in 1987, they both came from tennis outbacks (Scotland and Serbia) and had to survive bloody catastrophes (a school mass  murder and a devastating Balkan war.)

Murray reacts to a point that didn't go his way.

At first, both were coached by inspired women, before they were shipped out to tennis academies far from home. The two even faced each other when they were just 11, long before they went on to become tall, sinewy, fit stars, who nonetheless long labored in the shadows of two of the best of all-time – Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal.
Nevermind that Murray and Djokovic are both gluten free and have tennis-playing brothers who have scored far less success. More importantly, they are the models of a new age of players with their thorough professionalism, superb two-handed backhands, quick-twitch returns, lightning speed and a dazzling defense-to-offense brilliance. Whew!

Sure, the public tries to warm up to Murray, a rather glum lad, while Djokovic is a free-form ham who is the game’s most fun-loving delight since Vitas Gerulaitis. True enough, firing a coach was an important move for Djokovic, while hiring one (Ivan Lendl) was central for Murray. And both came to realize that huge patriotic performances (Serbia winning the Davis Cup and Murray reaching the Wimbledon final and gaining the Olympic Gold) suddenly gave an inner belief which catapulted them to breakout years (2011 for Djokovic and 2012 for Murray), which in turn kick-started frenetic celebrations in their homelands.

All of which brings us to Australia, where the two survived brutal battles against Swiss players (Djokovic was almost booted out in the fourth round by Stan Wawrinka in a classic five set, 5:02 war and, in five sets in the semis, Murray again managed to down Federer.)

So, in the final, the two survivors, came out in black outfits trimmed with yellow, toting their Head rackets and wearing adidas shoes. Yes, Djokovic was on a 20-match Melbourne winning streak, while Murray knew the last time they played in a final, the U.S. Open, he had prevailed.

Still – these two warriors who shared so much for so long – also shared a burning ambition: to lift the Norman Brookes trophy. And, as the final unfolded, there was even more to share.

In the first set, Djokovic played better than Murray and had ample opportunities, but he couldn’t convert any of his five break points and went on to be destroyed (7-1) in the tie-break.

Similarly in the second set, Murray had three break points in the second game to possibly cement his lead against a surprisingly dispirited Djokovic. But he faltered and, as he and Djokovic continued to hold serve, the intensely physical match marched on to a tense second set tie-break at which point destiny, with its delicate hand, came by. 

The tennis gods looked down and seemed to whisper to Murray, “Hey, good chap, this here happens to be Rod Laver Arena, Novak’s court. You  just had your snappy run (that teary Wimbledon final, Olympic gold and the U.S. Open title.) This is the golden era. We must share the glory with all four of you in our fabulous string quartet. And how odd it would be if Novak was No. 1 in the rankings, but had not won a major in over a year. So we do hope you understand good Scot we are going to have to intervene.

And then, from the heavens, there floated down a single delicate feather, a wisp of destiny. So Murray, before he was about to stroke his second serve in the second set tie-break with the players on serve 2-3, had to stop his service motion. He broke his rhythm, and he and a ball boy managed to clear the fateful interloper. But Murray promptly double faulted and then lost four of the next five points to drop the second set.

Then, early in the third set, Andy would drop his serve for the first time in the match and soon he lost his conditioning, too. The man who had earlier said, “I’ll have to be ready for the pain. I hope it will be a painful match,” should be careful what he asks for. Wincing and limping, grabbing his hamstring and offering not so pleasant expletives, it seemed like the fickle feather of fate had spoken. While Murray seemed bothered by fatigue, blisters and a boisterous crowd, Djokovic’s confidence took flight.

His shots soared free, and he all but flew around Laver arena. In the end, he became the first man in the Open era to capture three straight Aussie titles and, to us mortals, his 3:40  6-7 (2), 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-2 win seemed like a runaway victory.

But the tennis gods knew better. After all, Novak Djokovic had won just by a feather.

Djokovic got stronger as the match wore on.