Andy Murray arrived back in the UK from Melbourne no closer to cracking the code required to defeat Novak Djokovic in a Grand Slam.
The world number two played some outstanding tennis in the second and third sets of the Australian Open final. And yet he still left the court with nothing to show for it, and without a win over the Serb at this level since the 2013 Wimbledon final.
A first Melbourne title always felt a bit of a long shot this year. Murray left home a couple of days after Christmas, and had to cope for five weeks with the understandable anxiety of being so far away from his heavily pregnant wife.
He says he would have flown home immediately had Kim gone into labour, but he knew he was very unlikely to have made it back in time.
An emotional month became even more turbulent when Kim’s father Nigel Sears collapsed on the Rod Laver Arena while watching his player Ana Ivanovic during the first Saturday night session.
Murray is very close to his father-in-law and went straight to the hospital after completing his third-round match. He returned the next day, and considered flying home, before the doctors gave Sears the green light to do the same.
Murray had return flights on hold for several days. Having a bag packed and next to the front door is excellent practice for an expectant father, but it must be very unsettling when you are trying to negotiate the latter stages of a Grand Slam before attempting to dethrone the runaway world number one.
When Murray lost his quarter-final to Roger Federer at the Australian Open of 2014, in his first major event since back surgery, he said it would have been “completely stupid” to expect him to win the title so soon. Victory this year was more plausible, but these were still a very challenging set of circumstances for a very emotional man.
Murray played extremely well throughout his time down under, but he will have plenty of food for thought while on paternity leave. He is hoping to return for Great Britain’s defence of the Davis Cup, which begins against Japan in Birmingham in the first week of March.
The first Masters events of the year follow in Indian Wells and Miami, before the European clay-court season heralds the start of the countdown to the French Open.
More pivotal clashes with Djokovic seem inevitable in the four months that will define the season, with Wimbledon, the Rio Olympics and the US Open all following on from Roland Garros.
So what will Murray’s approach against the now 11-time Grand Slam champion be?
His start in Melbourne was well below par, and there was no indication of a clear strategy emerging until he found himself a set and a break down. By then it was arguably too late, as Murray has never beaten Djokovic after dropping the first set.
The world number one made his now customary exceptional start, but there was little sign of the breathtaking aggression and neatly timed approaches to the net which later highlighted Murray’s stirring counterattack.
Djokovic summed it up best after the match, when he commented: “I felt he was pretty neutral from the back of the court.”
Murray has the tools to push Djokovic all the way, as he showed in last year’s French Open semi-final and when he beat him in the final in Montreal.
But he also knows the task is unlikely to get any easier. Djokovic is allowing himself just a few days off, before switching his attention to the next challenge on the horizon.