Murray prepares to cross paths with Djokovic

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The Independent Online

The careers of Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, who meet here tomorrow (Thursday April 24) in the third round of the Monte-Carlo Masters, followed remarkably similar paths until last spring.

Born within a week of one another, they were friends and rivals from an early age as juniors and made rapid progress on joining the senior circuit. After both equalled their best performances at a Grand Slam tournament by reaching the fourth round of last year’s Australian Open, Murray was ranked No 14 in the world, one place below Djokovic.

Tomorrow, however, it will be the 20-year-old Serb who will be the clear favourite. While Murray’s career was hampered by a succession of injuries last year – he missed the French Open and Wimbledon after damaging tendons in his wrist – Djokovic has gone from strength to strength. He is ranked No 3 in the world, 17 places above Murray, and has become a consistent challenger to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal when the game’s major honours are at stake.

Djokovic’s performances in the last four Grand Slam tournaments tell their own story of his progress: after reaching the semi-finals at both the French Open and Wimbledon, he lost in the US Open final to Federer and claimed his first major title three months ago with victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the Australian Open.

“I'm not surprised by the tournaments he's won, but the consistency of his results has been unbelievable,” Murray said here as he looked ahead to their encounter. “It’s more the consistency that has been surprising rather than the fact that he’s won a Grand Slam. I think a lot of people expected him to do that anyway.”

Consistency is one of the qualities that Murray wants to achieve this spring, his last two clay-court campaigns having brought poor returns. The British No 1’s victories over Feliciano Lopez and Filippo Volandri in the first two rounds here were his first back-to-back wins in clay-court tournaments since he joined the senior circuit three years ago and a good start to his working relationship with the former French Open finalist, Alex Corretja, who has joined his coaching team.

"I haven't had great results on clay, but I've only played 11 or 12 matches on clay on the tour," Murray said. "I've had a few injury problems on the clay, but I got a good two weeks of practice before I got here and obviously getting the chance to work with someone like Alex has helped too. I played well as a junior on clay and I won a lot of Futures tournaments on clay when I was 16 or 17, but it's just understanding how to beat the best clay-courters on this surface. It's tough. You have to grind out a lot of points."

He added: “The two seasons that I think I actually most look forward to are the clay and the grass, purely because I play only four or five tournaments a year on clay and only two on the grass. It's completely different to the rest of the year. They’re very different surfaces and quite hard to master. You need to work on a lot of different things and I like that.”

What did Murray most enjoy about playing on clay? “I think it’s the way the points go back and forward. Normally on a hard court or indoors, even on grass, when someone starts to attack they tend to finish the point, coming to the net or forcing your opponent to make a mistake.

“On clay someone can hit a great first serve, but it's much easier to return. The ball can come back deep. Guys will also get to drop shots and you might have to play a lob. There are a lot of different variations in the game on clay, whereas it’s much more simple on other surfaces.”

Looking ahead to his meeting with Djokovic, who had a bye in the first round before beating Ivan Ljubicic in the second, Murray said: "He's obviously had a great start to the year. I saw a little bit of his match here and he's playing very well. He's expected to win the match and I just hope I can go out and play like I've done over the last couple of days. If I do, it's going to be a good match and I've got a chance of winning."

The two men have met three times before on the senior tour, with Djokovic winning on each occasion. Murray let slip a winning position when losing in three sets indoors in Madrid in 2006, while he was struggling with injuries when they met in successive semi-finals on hard courts in the United States early last year.

Hard courts have proved Djokovic’s best surface, but such is the quality of his all-round game that there is no reason why he should not enjoy success elsewhere. “I think I have enough quality to beat the best players in the world, even on this surface,” he said. “I had more time than last year to prepare, to rest and to work on some things, particular things for clay, and hopefully it's going to pay off in the tournaments.”