As Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray looked ahead yesterday to this afternoon's start of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, the sight of the two men sitting either side of a lounge inside London's O2 Arena, discussing with the world's media their chances at the end-of-season finale, provided a neat summary of their professional lives. Born within a week of one another 24 years ago, friends and rivals since they first met on a court at an under-12s tournament in the south of France, their careers have followed largely parallel lines as they have leapfrogged each other en route to the top.
The difference today, however, is that Djokovic's latest leap has been of Bob Beamon proportions. Just as the American flew way beyond the reach of his rivals with his breath-taking long jump at the 1968 Olympics, so Djokovic has left a chasm between himself and Murray. The Scot has had the best year of his life, but his achievements pale alongside those of Djokovic, whose season will go down as one of the most remarkable ever.
With his physical condition much improved after losing weight and adopting a gluten-free diet, Djokovic won his first 41 matches of the year, falling just one short of John McEnroe's modern record, and added the Wimbledon and US Open titles to the Australian Open he had won at Murray's expense. He has won $10.8m (£6.8m) in prize money, 10 titles and 69 out of 73 matches, and ended the seven-year hold of Federer and Rafael Nadal on the world No 1 ranking. No wonder he was named yesterday as the ATP's player of the year.
Rod Laver may have won more titles in 1968 (17, including a calendar Grand Slam), Jimmy Connors may have won a higher ratio of matches in 1974 (95 out of 99) and Federer lost to fewer players (only Nadal and Murray) in 2006, but Djokovic's achievements have come during a golden age featuring two of the greatest players of all time. Until Australia this year, Federer and Nadal had won 21 of the previous 23 Grand Slam tournaments.
Djokovic traces his rise back to this stage last year. Building on his run to the US Open final (his first appearance in a Grand Slam final in 10 attempts after winning the 2008 Australian Open), he enjoyed a splendid autumn, capped by Serbia's Davis Cup triumph.
"One of the springboards was probably that US Open final last year," Djokovic said yesterday.
"In 2010 I had a lot of ups and downs. In the first five or six months I had a lot of health issues. I wasn't playing very well in the major events. Then in the next six months I was starting to play better and better in each tournament.
"I played some great matches in the US Open and reached the final. I started believing in myself more. That could be seen on the court as well. Then the Davis Cup title was the first ever for Serbian tennis. It was an historic moment. We won the title at home and I got to share this title with my friends from the national team. We felt that that gave us a lot of energy."
What did Djokovic think had made the difference in his year compared with Murray's? "It's very hard for me to speak for him, but I know that the difference in my game was just my mental approach and maturity on and off the court. I figured out how to deal with the pressure, how to play the right shots at the right moments. I used the experience that I've had over the years playing against Roger, Rafa and Andy.
"I have maybe more self-belief on the court that I can win major events, that I can win the matches that I've been losing in past years. Andy has played Grand Slam finals already and been in the world's top four the last couple of years.
"I'm sure he wants a Grand Slam title at this moment more than anybody. I'm sure he will make it because he has the quality to do so. He's won so many big events and against all the best players in the world. He's a complete player."
Djokovic said his triumph at Wimbledon – "the tournament that I always dreamed of winning" – was the highlight of his year and career.
He is thinking of going to the All England Club this week "to have a cup of tea as a member" and revealed that he has been given a special memento of his victory. "I asked the groundsman for a piece of the grass. I couldn't get that, but in return I got the net [from the final], so that is now in a special place in my home."
Although he has not been the same since giving his all to win the US Open – he did not look entirely convincing when he said he was "100 per cent ready" for this week following the shoulder injury that forced him out of the recent Paris Masters – Djokovic believes he can raise his game to even greater heights next year. "It's always possible to get better," he said.
Djokovic v Murray
22 May 1987 Born 15 May 1987
Belgrade Birthplace Dunblane
Monte Carlo Home Surrey
6ft 2in Height 6ft 3in
12st 8lb Weight 13st 3lb
Marian Vajda Coach Dani Vallverdu
1 World ranking 3
2003 Turned professional 2005
£19.7m Career earnings £11.8m
28 Titles 21
4 Grand Slams 0
6 Head to head 4
Guide to London's ATP World Tour Finals
Novak Djokovic (Serbia, age 24, world No 1)
Fifth successive appearance. Won in 2008. Has enjoyed one of the great years in history, winning three Grand Slams. Struggled since US Open.
Andy Murray (GB, age 24, world No 3)
Fourth successive appearance. Semi-finalist in 2008 and 2010. Four 2011 titles. Lost only two of last 29 matches.
David Ferrer (Spain, age 29, world No 5)
Reached final on 2007 debut (beaten by Federer), lost every match last year.
Tomas Berdych (Czech Republic, age 26, world No 7)
Debut last year. Had not won a title for two years until Beijing last month.
Rafael Nadal (Spain, age 25, world No 2)
Four previous appearances. Reached one final, losing to Federer last year. Three titles is smallest haul since 2004. Lost to Djokovic in six finals in 2011.
Roger Federer (Switzerland, age 30, world No 4)
Tenth successive appearance, fifth win last year. Went 10 months without a title until recent wins in Basle and Paris.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (France, age 26, world No 6)
One appearance (2008). Has won two titles since US Open.
Mardy Fish (United States, age 29, world No 8)
Debut. Journeyman until new fitness regime. Broke into top 10 this year.
Order of play
Today 12pm: Federer v Tsonga; 8pm: Nadal v Fish
Tomorrow 2pm: Murray v Ferrer; 8pm: Djokovic v Berdych
Participation fee: £76,000. Round-robin win: £76,000. Semi-final win: £241,000. Final win: £488,000.Reuse content