US Open: Andy Murray feels extra day's rest should provide final advantage over Novak Djokovic
British No 1 goes into fifth Slam showdown hoping to emulate Lendl – who lost his first four
What goes around comes around. Four years ago Andy Murray's chances of beating Roger Federer and winning his first Grand Slam title here at the US Open were hampered when he spent the day before the final beating Rafael Nadal in their rain-delayed semi-final. At the same time Federer could prepare for the match tucked up in his hotel room, probably eating the occasional Lindt chocolate and sipping Swiss mountain water, having finished his semi-final before a massive thunderstorm had broken the previous day. Federer went on to beat Murray in straight sets.
As Murray prepared yesterday for his final here today against Novak Djokovic, the 25-year-old Scot could reflect on the fact that this time the tennis gods – if that is what you can call tournament organisers – have been smiling on him.
Once again rain disrupted the final weekend, forcing the final to be postponed until a third Monday for the fifth year in succession, but this time it was Murray who was able to complete his semi-final before the heavens opened, beating Tomas Berdych 5-7, 6-2, 6-1, 7-6.
While the Scot could relax before and after a mid-afternoon training session yesterday, Djokovic was completing a 2-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 semi-final victory over David Ferrer. The Serb had played for only 32 minutes on Saturday before play was called off – with Ferrer leading 5-2 in the first set – because of an impending thunderstorm. Although Djokovic needed only two more hours to finish off the Spaniard yesterday, the world No 2 knew he would have to return again barely 24 hours later for today's final, which is due to begin at 4pm (9pm BST).
Djokovic said he hoped this would be the last year of "Super Saturday" with men's semi-finals scheduled just 24 hours before the final, but insisted: "I don't feel any problems physically. It was good to have the job done in four sets today. I feel as fresh as I can be at this stage of the tournament."
Murray recalled that his 2008 final here had flashed past "in the blink of an eye". He added: "This time I have a day to practise and rest and think about it. I'm sure I will deal with it all better this time. I've got four more years of experience and quite a lot of that experience has come this year."
It has been a wonderful summer for Murray. After a moderate clay-court season – the French Open, where he went out in the quarter-finals, was the only Grand Slam tournament in the last two years where he has failed to make the last four – he reached his first Wimbledon final, losing to Federer. Four weeks later he gained revenge over the world No 1, who had also beaten him in his first two Grand Slam finals, in the Olympic final, having knocked out Djokovic in the semi-finals.
In preparing for today's final Murray has been able to seek the advice of the only other man who knows what it is like to lose your first four Grand Slam finals. Ivan Lendl, Murray's coach, won his fifth – and went on to win seven more.
Lendl, nevertheless, says that, in his mind, "we both lost the first four finals and won the fifth one". He believes that Murray's victory at the Olympics ranks alongside a Grand Slam title, if not higher, because most players get only two chances to win a gold medal when they are in their prime.
Djokovic, who said that Murray "already has enough experience to know how to play well on the big stage in important matches", believes that the Scot has benefited this year from playing a more aggressive game.
"I think he's going for the shots more than he used to," Djokovic said. "I don't know if it's with Ivan's help or not, but he's definitely improved that part of the game. Mentally I think he is more aggressive on the court. That was probably the only thing that was missing in his game, because he's one of the most complete players in the world right now."
The Olympics victory, along with his run to two successive Grand Slam finals this summer, has clearly done much for Murray's confidence. "Obviously this year in the major tournaments, with the Olympics, it's been my best year," Murray said. "I'd never made two Grand Slam finals in a year, so that's obviously a good sign that I'm playing better and still learning.
"The Olympics was the biggest win of my career by far. It meant a lot to me, too. Whatever happens in the final, it's been a great year. But all I want to make sure I do in the final is that I give 110 per cent. I know how hard these opportunities are to come by and I will give it everything."
He will need to as Djokovic has won the last three Grand Slam tournaments played on hard courts. Although the 25-year-old Serb has not matched his remarkable year in 2011, when he won three Grand Slam titles, he has been in top form over the last fortnight. He had not dropped a set until the semi-finals and crushed Ferrer once the conditions returned to normal.
While this tournament has always been a favourite for Murray, who won his only Grand Slam junior title here eight years ago and reached his first senior Grand Slam final here four years later, Djokovic has an even better record. The defending champion has made the semi-finals or better for the last six years and will be playing in his third final here in a row.
Djokovic has won eight of his 14 meetings with Murray and both of their Grand Slam encounters. He crushed the Scot in straight sets in last year's Australian Open final but only scraped home in a much closer five-set marathon in this year's Melbourne semi-finals.
"I handled a big match against him well in Australia this year," Murray said. "It was a great match. I think both of us played very well. It came down to a couple of points. I know how much the Olympics meant to all of the players and winning against him in the Olympic semi-final was a big win for me. I know how tough it is to beat the top, top players in big matches."
MURRAY v DJOKOVIC: HEAD TO HEAD
* Novak Djokovic leads Andy Murray 8-6 in career meetings ahead of tonight's New York match, although the Scot has prevailed in three of the last five matches, including the Olympics semi-final last month.
Record on hard courts:
Djokovic: 6; Murray: 5
Head-to-head sets won:
Djokovic: 18; Murray: 15
Fifth time lucky? Murray's finals
2008: US Open v Roger Federer
Lost 2-6, 5-7, 2-6
Murray's debut Grand Slam final came just a day after beating Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals. It was no surprise when he could not find his best tennis two days in a row.
2010: Australian Open, v Federer
Lost 3-6, 4-6, 6-7
Eighteen months wiser but no closer to eclipsing Federer. Murray never got going.
2011: Australian Open, v Novak Djokovic
Lost 4-6, 2-6, 3-6
No Federer or Nadal in his path. No difference as Djokovic embarked on his annus mirabilis.
2012: Wimbledon, v Federer
Lost 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 4-6
The first time the Scot has done himself justice in a Grand Slam final – but still a defeat.
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