Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic were born a week apart and have been the best players of their generation ever since they first met at an under-12s tournament in Tarbes in south-west France 13 years ago.
They grew up as friends, still play football against each other and practise together regularly. Tomorrow they will meet here in the final of the Australian Open. "I won 6-0, 6-1 maybe," Murray said last night as he recalled their first encounter. "A lot's changed since then, I'm sure. It will be just a bit tougher than that on Sunday."
With Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the two greatest players of recent times, back home in Europe, their pride and body respectively battered by defeats here, there could be no more fitting line-up for the first Grand Slam final of what could be a new era for the men's game. "We're good friends, so in terms of a rivalry, I hope this will be the start of us playing each other in big matches," Murray said.
Twenty-four hours after the Serb blasted Federer off the court, Murray earned a place in his third Grand Slam final with a masterful 4-6, 7-6, 6-1, 7-6 victory over David Ferrer. Seventy-five years after the last Grand Slam singles triumph by a British man, Murray now has his best chance yet to earn a place in history, having lost to Federer in the finals of the US Open in 2008 and here 12 months ago.
Djokovic, who won his only Grand Slam title here in 2008, will be a formidable opponent, but Murray believes the experience from those past disappointments will help him cope better this time.
The 23-year-old Scot said that last year's defeat to Federer, which left him in tears at the post-match presentation, had made him "a better player, stronger mentally", though he added: "I'm playing against a great player. Novak played unbelievable tennis against Roger. It's one of those matches where, if I play very well, I will definitely be in with a shot of winning, but I will need to play my best tennis."
If Djokovic will have the advantage of an extra day's rest, the conditions should favour Murray. The last fortnight has been one of the coolest in living memory for this tournament, but a daytime temperature of 41C is forecast for tomorrow. Even when the match starts at 7.30pm (8.30am GMT), 34C is predicted. While Murray has repeatedly proved his durability, Djokovic has sometimes struggled. Two years ago he retired with heat exhaustion in the fourth set of his quarter-final here.
This will be their first meeting for nearly two years. Usually ranked No 3 and No 4, they have nearly always been in opposite halves of the draw for the bigger tournaments. Djokovic, who is a week younger, was the quicker to settle on the senior circuit and won their first four meetings. Murray, however, has taken the last three, the most recent two in Masters Series finals.
Having drifted apart for a while, they have grown closer again in recent times. "We always got on well," Murray said. "I've spent a lot more time with him. We've had quite a lot of the same experiences over the last few years. We have obviously got a lot in common, but the last year or so we've spent a lot more time practising together. We always message each other if we do well in tournaments. He's a very nice guy and good fun to be around. I'll be putting that to one side on Sunday, but hopefully we'll be friends afterwards."
Both men will be playing on their favourite surface in a match that will be a contrast of styles between two great athletes. With the exception of his occasionally suspect serve, Djokovic has no weaknesses. Striking the ball with great power from the baseline, he even out-hit Federer. Murray, who has the game's best backhand and is more comfortable at the net, is a counter-puncher who likes to unsettle opponents with his variations of pace and spin.
"You have to play solid," Murray said when asked how he could beat Djokovic. "He doesn't give you many errors from the back of the court. He struggled on his serve the last couple of years. On his second serve he has served quite a lot of double faults at tight moments. I will have to put pressure on his serve, make him feel like I'm taking chances on his serve games, hitting good returns."
Murray's semi-final yesterday followed a similar pattern to last year, when he lost the first set against Marin Cilic. While the Scot struggled to find his rhythm, Ferrer struck the ball with all his usual consistency, barely making a mistake and regularly punishing Murray's second serve. Scampering to all corners, Ferrer took every punch Murray could throw at him and bounced back off the ropes to hit winning blows of his own.
Although the Scot broke serve three times in the first two sets, Ferrer broke back in the following game each time. The 28-year-old Spaniard had a point for a two-sets lead at 4-5, Murray saving it with a service winner. He admitted later that he was unaware it was set point, thinking the score was 3-4.
Murray had changed to a more tightly strung racket in the second set, enabling him to swing more freely at the ball. He played closer to the baseline, attacked more frequently and varied his tactics, surprising Ferrer with forays to the net. The tactics worked beautifully in the second set tie-break, which Murray won 7-2, to the evident relief of his entourage, who were joined by the women's world No 1 Caroline Wozniacki, one of the Scot's Adidas stablemates.
By the third set Murray was playing beautifully, cracking huge winners down the line on both flanks and striking some wonderfully improvised shots, including an exquisite sliced backhand pass and a high backhand struck with his back almost to the net after chasing deep to retrieve a lob. The crowd, overwhelmingly on Murray's side, had, like the world No 5, taken time to warm up, but by now they were in full voice.
At 2-0 in the fourth set Murray had won eight games out of nine, but just as he approached the finish line he stumbled. The world No 5 appeared to be revelling in his own talent but started going for too many big shots and screamed at himself to "calm down" as Ferrer won three games in a row. Nevertheless, Murray again dominated the tie-break, winning it 7-2 after three hours and 46 minutes. It was, remarkably, the 11th tie-break in a row that Ferrer has lost at the Australian Open.
As he prepares for the final, Murray will try to block out of his mind the occasion's historical significance. "It's more of a personal dream," he said. "That's really what you need to keep in check and not get ahead of yourself. The historical thing is not something that I've thought about that much. Obviously for me personally I want to try and win, but I also don't want to get myself so amped up that I play a stinker of a match.
"I think if you go in thinking 'No one's won for 70-odd years', you might never get another chance. I'm going to make the most of the opportunity."
Following Fred Perry
The last British winner of the men's singles at the Australian Open was Fred Perry, 77 years ago. He won the 1934 tournament under its previous guise of the Australian Championship, beating home favourite Jack Crawford in straight sets 6-3, 7-5, 6-1. It was the second of Perry's eight Grand Slam titles, but his only Australian crown. Crawford gained his revenge the following year, beating Perry 2-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 in the final. John Lloyd is the only other British man to have reached the final of the Australian Open, losing to American Vitas Gerulaitis in five sets in 1977.Reuse content