By Greg Stutchbury
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - World number four Andy Murray is convinced he is a better tennis player than last year and on an upward curve despite losing an epic five-set Australian Open semi-final to world number one Novak Djokovic in the early hours of Saturday.
The 24-year-old Murray had been seeking a place in his third successive final at Melbourne Park, but failed to close out his opportunities against the Serbian who won 6-3 3-6 6-7 6-1 7-5 in four hours, 50 minutes.
"Everybody matures at different ages and different rates. I feel now like I'm ready mentally (to challenge the top three)," Murray said when asked if he felt he had changed since his loss to Djokovic in the 2011 final.
"Physically I can still get better, for sure. But in comparison to how I played last year, it was much, much better.
"Tonight's match was important for many reasons. Obviously I wanted to win first and foremost, but after last year, the year that Novak had, I think there's a very fine line between being number one in the world and being three or four.
"I think that gap, I feel tonight I closed it," added Murray, who has credited new coach Ivan Lendl with boosting his confidence. "My job over the next two or three months is to surpass him and the guys in front of me."
Murray had plenty of chances to win the semi-final against Djokovic, who appeared to be battling periods of fatigue. The Serbian put little pace on the ball and was seemingly just willing to get it back into play and hope the Scot made a mistake.
"Even if he looks tired or he's breathing heavy, you have just kind of got to put your foot down on the accelerator and not wait for him to miss because he's hitting the ball so cleanly, as well," Murray said.
"If he is tired, which both of us will have been tired at different points during that match, you know, he's hitting the ball so cleanly, he's going for shots and making them, shortening the points."
Murray had been accused of being too defensive in the past. In the semi-final he was noticeably more aggressive, but he also resorted to type and withdrew into himself at crucial moments when he held the advantage.
On several occasions he had the opportunity to either break Djokovic or consolidate a break and seize the match by the scruff of the neck but somehow the Serbian found a way to wriggle out of trouble.
By the time Murray had taken the third set for a 2-1 lead Djokovic looked to be out of the match, but instead he blasted Murray off court in the fourth, racing to a 4-0 lead and conceding just four points.
The Serbian took a 5-2 lead in the decider before Murray again fought his way back to level at 5-5 and he had the chance to win the match when he held three break points in the 11th game.
"I had the chance at five-all, one of the points, and I missed a backhand into the net," Murray said.
"But if you look at the stats from that game, it was probably like four or five deuces (and) he missed one first serve.
"Again, he served really well on those points, so he was able to dictate them...When I was getting myself into the rallies, I was dictating a lot of the points.
"It was tough at the end because you come back, then you get close to breaking.
"But (I am) a different player, (with) a different attitude to this time last year...I'm proud of the way I fought."
(Editing by Clare Fallon; To comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org)