Djokovic v Murray: Pumped up and in their prime
Step aside Federer and Nadal, Djokovic v Murray is now the most intense rivalry, with both players in top form at the Australian Open
Time never stands still in sport, and today's Australian Open final provides confirmation that there is a new headline act in men's tennis. Step aside Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, step forward Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. While the 31-year-old Federer nurses his battered pride after losing Friday's semi-final and Nadal nurses his battered knees during his six-month absence from the court, Djokovic and Murray will again take a stage they look set to dominate for years to come.
Four months after Murray beat the Serb in the final of the last Grand Slam tournament of 2012, the opening event of 2013 will host a rematch between the two 25-year-olds. Murray will be playing in his third straight Grand Slam final and his third here in the past four years. Djokovic, who is going for his third successive win here, has played in seven of the past nine Grand Slam finals, winning four.
"I think it's special because we are the same age, there's only a week's difference between us," Djokovic said when asked about their rivalry. "We've known each other since we were 11 or 12 years old. I guess that adds something very special to our rivalry.
"As we developed, of course we have improved our games, we have improved as athletes, as people, and it's nice to see somebody that you grew up with doing so well."
Djokovic and Murray have been taking the game to new heights, especially with their remarkable levels of fitness and powers of endurance. Twelve months ago Djokovic overcame the Scot here in a near-five-hour semi-final and 48 hours later beat Nadal in a final that lasted nearly six hours. Four months ago Murray turned the tables, beating Djokovic in the US Open final after nearly five hours.
The margins between the two men are minimal. Their games are similar, combining baseline aggression with outstanding defence and athleticism. Murray knows he will need to serve as well as he did against Federer and avoid the dips he suffered in two tie-breaks. He could afford them given his clear superiority over the Swiss but is unlikely to dominate Djokovic in the same fashion.
Murray, nevertheless, has the self-belief that he can beat the very best. "That's the thing that changes from winning big matches," Murray said. "You get used to it and have that extra bit of belief each time you go on the court. What Novak did a couple of years ago set the bar, and what Roger and Rafa were doing for five or six years always set the standard. It's been up to everyone else to catch up, and I think that I've done a good job for the last year or so.
"My results over the past year or so suggest I have played some of my best tennis in the bigger matches at the Slams and the Olympics. Obviously you're not going to win all of them, but more often than not I'm now giving myself chances to win these events every time I play them."
Murray is attempting to become the first man in the Open era to follow up his first Grand Slam title with victory in the next event. Ivan Lendl, his coach, needed six more tournaments to win his second Grand Slam crown, but does not believe such statistics have any relevance to today's match.
Lendl said yesterday: "I told Andy before the tournament, 'Apparently no player has won three Australian Opens in a row in the Open era and no player in the Open era has won his first major and then won his second win in the very next major. So that means Roger has to win here.' That's not going to happen now, so one of those theories goes out of the window tomorrow."
Given Murray's age and fitness, Lendl does not believe that Djokovic's extra day of rest will be of any consequence. Indeed, four of the past five finals here have been won by the player who won the second semi-final.
Lendl was delighted with the way Murray completed his victory over Federer after the Swiss had levelled the match at two sets apiece. "Andy's fitness came through and carried him through the fifth set," said Lendl. "I think it was apparent that he was fitter in the fifth set than Roger and that's why that set was relatively – using that word loosely – easy.
"I'm very proud of him, how he dealt with it. I think it has to do with his preparation, though. If you feel you're strong and you don't feel like you are going to run out of gas it's a lot easier to deal with that than if you feel, 'I've only got four more games in me'."
Victory would see Murray overhaul Fred Perry's British record of 106 match wins at Grand Slam level, though most observers here are tipping Djokovic to win, on the strength of his three previous Melbourne triumphs and his two victories over Murray in the Rod Laver Arena.
Mats Wilander, who won this title three times in the 1980s, believes that Murray won last year's US Open final because Djokovic was less well equipped to handle breezy conditions. "Here I have to pick Djokovic, because I haven't seen Murray beat Djokovic at the Australian Open in a sterile, nice environment and I don't think the level he played yesterday [against Federer] is enough," Wilander said.
Rod Laver, the only man ever to win all four Grand Slam titles in the same year twice, backed Djokovic on the basis of his crushing victory over David Ferrer.
"I think his semi-final match is probably a pretty good teller as to why I've picked him," Laver said. "He's playing well. So is Murray. I'm picking a match that is probably close, but I think that Djokovic can pull it off."
John Newcombe, who was twice a champion here in the 1970s, is one of the few tipping Murray. "I picked Murray to win at the beginning of the tournament," he said.
"I knew there were going to be some really bruising battles along the way, but I think he showed on Friday night against Federer how fit he is. He certainly seems to have strengthened his legs up. I am sticking with Murray to take the title in four or five very tight sets."
If Andy Murray wins today he will become the first man for 57 years to follow up his maiden Grand Slam title with victory in the next event. The feat was last achieved by Lew Hoad, who in 1956 won his first title at the Australian Championships (when only four non-Australians entered the men's singles) and went on to win at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. He was denied a pure Grand Slam of all four majors in the same year by his fellow Australian Ken Rosewall, who beat him in the final in New York. Hoad (below), who died in 1994, is regarded by some aficionados of the game as the greatest player in history, better even than Rod Laver or Roger Federer. He was a spectacular shot-maker who hit the ball with great power. Hoad also claimed men's doubles titles at all four majors. After winning his second Wimbledon in 1957 at the age of 22, Hoad turned professional, but after suffering back problems the following year he was never the same player again.
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