A fortnight ago, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic were practising together,as they did most days when they were competing at the Hopman Cup in Perth at the start of the month. When they got tired of hitting tennis balls, they played four-a-side football. Murray's team included Djokovic's coach, Marian Vajda, and the brother of Marin Cilic, the world No 15. "We played in Perth once and once here in a gym," Murray recalled. He could not resist the follow-up: "We managed to win by one goal each time."
Successful sportsmen who are not ferociously competitive, whether on the football pitch or the Monopoly board, are as rare as snowfall in Melbourne Park, and a friendship between Murray and Djokovic dating back to before their teenage years will be set aside as the two 23-year-olds lock horns here today in the final of the Australian Open.
With Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, winners of 21 of the last 23 Grand Slam titles, back home in Europe, it is a rare chance for the junior partners in the quartet that has dominated men's tennis for the last three years to claim one of the game's great prizes.
"When we've seen each other off the courts, I've never been jealous of him," Murray said of his relationship with Djokovic. "We've always got on well. When we were a bit younger, because we were the two trying to get ahead of Roger and Rafa, we were wanting to push each other a bit, so the matches were sometimes a little fiery, but now we get on very well. We played doubles here when I first came on the Tour. We spoke in Perth about maybe playing doubles a couple of times this year. We've never had a falling-out and have always got on well."
As Murray attempts to end Britain's 75-year wait for a Grand Slam men's singles champion, he will know this represents his best opportunity yet. The Scot has already played in two major finals, losing in straight sets to Federer both in New York in 2008 and here last year, and knows what to expect of the occasion, from the quiet of the locker room to the passion of the big-match arena.
Player areas beneath the stadium can be lonely places at the end of any Grand Slam. For most of the last fortnight they have been a hive of activity, but of the 256 singles competitors, only Murray and Djokovic remain.
"It's different now because the locker room is totally dead except for the two of us and our coaches," Murray said. "We'll be in the same lockerroom, but it's totally empty, with no noise. Sometimes you get a bit of music on to focus you a little.
"I'll just prepare in the locker room after practising at the same time I practised before my semi-final. I'll start warming up with some exercises, go to the toilet a couple of times. I'll do all the same things I've been doing so far. I always like having people around me, but I'm sure before the match I'll take a moment to walk off on my own and get myself calm and ready for what is to come."
The burden of history can weigh heavily on British shoulders at Wimbledon, but here, far away from Europe in the middle of the southern hemisphere summer at the tournament Federer labelled "the Happy Slam", Murray will not be thinking about becoming the first of his countrymen to win a major since Fred Perry. "I will definitely go out there fired up on the court, but it will be to get myself ready to face the first point, not to rewrite tennis history," he said.
Did Murray think he would feel any different to last year, in that he will be going out to play an opponent with just one Grand Slam title to his name rather than the man acknowledged as the greatest of all time?
"I don't think so," Murray said. "I've played against both of them many times. Against Roger I had many wins, so it wasn't like I was going out on the court thinking: 'Oh God, I've got no chance here.' Obviously he has a lot of experience and obviously the whole crowd normally want him to do well, but hopefully this time it will be a bit different."
Kim Sears, Murray's long-time girlfriend, has not travelled here, but helps to keep him grounded with their daily phone conversations. "We just try to not talk about tennis if it's possible," Murray said. "We talk about a lot of other stuff like the dog and what's going on."
What did Murray think the impact would be back home if he were to win here? "I've no idea," he replied in typically deadpan fashion. "I hope if it happens, it will be a huge story."
He added: "We'll have to wait and see if it happens. If it doesn't happen, I'll go back to being the same person I was. If it does, I'll hope I don't change. I'll try and stay away from the attention as much as possible."
Avoid the spotlight if he achieves a feat last performed by a Briton in New York in 1936? As one of that city's most famous sons once said, you cannot be serious.
If Murray wins today, anything can happen
Andy Murray can make British sporting history today by becoming the first British man to win a Grand Slam singles title since Fred Perry won the 1936 US Open. If he’s victorious, it must be an omen that the following can get these sporting monkeys off their backs.
Cricket England to win World Cup. Walloped by the Windies in 1979, before Mike Gatting’s inexplicable reverse-sweep in the 1987 final. Another close to Imran Khan’s Cornered Tigers in 1992 but England can rule world in India in April.
Golf Lee Westwood to win Masters. He may be the world No1 but the Worksop wizard is now 37 years old, so time is running out but back him to master Augusta National in April.
Football Man City to win FA Cup. City’s last major bauble was the 1976 League Cup. The blue half of Manchester would love nothing more than tearing down the “35 years (and counting)” banner at Stretford End.
Rugby Union New Zealand to win Rugby World Cup. The All Blacks have been the best side on the planet since time began but their peerless ability to choke means the only time they have ruled the world was on home soil in the inaugural tournament in 1987.
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