Wimbledon 2013: Rivals Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are old friends – but not today
The Wimbledon finalists have known each other since they were 12, but now that they are the world's No 1 and No 2 players, that closeness has been put on hold
Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic first met at an under-12s tournament in the south of France, became friends and rivals as they came up through the junior ranks and continued their friendship in their early days as senior professionals. They occasionally joined forces in doubles and even played football against each other when the opportunities arose.
These days, as the world's top two players, the relationship between Murray and Djokovic is different. When the Scot and the Serb go on to Centre Court to contest this afternoon's Wimbledon final they will do so as the sport's biggest rivals. This is their third meeting in a Grand Slam final in the last 10 months. The recent score currently stands at one win apiece.
Murray has been achieving some of his biggest career goals in the last year – including winning Olympic gold and his first Grand Slam title – and Djokovic now stands in the way of his last two big targets, Wimbledon and the world No 1 ranking. It is no wonder that the days of a cosier, warmer relationship are in the past.
"I think we have a professional friendship now," Murray said as he looked forward to his 19th career meeting with his contemporary. "When we were younger it was more friendly. I still message him sometimes and we've spent a lot of time discussing various issues within tennis and doing what I think was best for the sport, but I don't think it goes more than that right now.
"I would hope that when we finish playing it will be different. But it's just hard because playing in big, big matches, with a lot on the line, you can't be best of friends."
The careers of the two men, who were born just a week apart, have often run along parallel lines. Murray was the more successful junior (Djokovic made the Australian Open boys' final, Murray won the US Open title), while Djokovic made the earlier breakthroughs at senior level.
The Serb was the first to win at Masters Series level (in 2007) and at Grand Slam level (2008). Djokovic has won six Grand Slam titles from 10 finals, while Murray has won just one from six.
If Murray's victories-to-finals ratio is well down on Djokovic's, there are, nevertheless, reasons to believe that the Scot has an outstanding chance today of ending his country's 77-year wait for a male Wimbledon singles champion.
Since losing to Roger Federer in last year's final here Murray has won Olympic gold and claimed his maiden Grand Slam title at last year's US Open. Those successes have brought greater self-belief and confidence.
"I definitely feel calmer today than I did on the Saturday last year," Murray said yesterday during a break from a training session on the practice courts at Aorangi Park. "Hopefully when I get on the court tomorrow I will be a bit fresher mentally. Sometimes nerves and stress can take a bit out of you physically, so the calmer you can stay in the next 24 hours or so will help as well."
Murray can also take into the match the memory of his only meeting with Djokovic on grass, a straight-sets victory in last year's Olympic semi-finals.
Asked whether he saw that match as the best form guide, Murray said: "We've played so many points, so many close sets, so many long rallies that I don't know exactly what it will be that makes the difference – whether it is a match, or a few points or just years of information gathered against each other. But having played against him and won against him on grass will help me. I know what worked against him at the Olympics."
Judging on recent form, it will be an immensely physical contest. Murray won in New York last summer after five sets and nearly five hours; Djokovic won after three hours and 40 minutes in four sets in Melbourne in January. Both men are phenomenal athletes and have similar games, based on their athleticism and all-round consistency.
"I think there are some similarities there," Murray said. "Both of us return well. That's probably the strongest part of our games. Both of us play predominantly from the baseline. We both move well, but a different sort of movement. He's extremely flexible and he slides more into shots even on the courts here. He's quite a bit lighter than me. I'd say I probably move with more power."
Murray sees the physical side as Djokovic's greatest strength. "He's extremely fit physically and that's why he's able to fight until the last point of every match. He never really has any let-downs physically, which he used to when he was younger."
How did Murray feel being so close to achieving the goal of almost every tennis player? "The closer you get to it the more you are obviously going to think about it, but the most important thing is that you aren't looking ahead," Murray said. "At no stage of the match can you get too ahead of yourself. Against most players that is dangerous. Against someone like Novak that is even more dangerous, because he is extremely fit and doesn't give anything away. I am going to need to earn every point tomorrow."
Asked what he might have wanted to ask Perry if the last British male singles champion here was still alive, Murray said he had never thought about it before. Nevertheless, it was good to know that the Scot maintains his sense of humour even at such a momentous time of his career. When asked what he thought Perry might have wanted to ask him, Murray replied, as quick as a flash: "Why are you not wearing my kit?"
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