Young Dog, New Tricks?
Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray will meet in the semifinals of the Australian Open. Last year, it was in the finals, but why quibble? Just like last year, both men have slashed their way to the semis with nary a glitch. As former Yankees catcher and New York Mets manager Yogi Berra, the master of the malapropism, famously said, "It's deja vu all over again. . ."
Or is it?
Just how different is "now" from "then"? Not very much, as far as Djokovic is concerned, quite a bit—perhaps—when it comes to Murray.
Going into last year's final, both Djokovic and Murray were on fire, but neither seemed ready to seriously challenge Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at the summit of the game. Djokovic mastered Federer in the semis (and in straight sets no less—talk about a harbinger!), but he still seemed a distant No. 3. It had been three years since Djokovic won his last—and only—major. That he bagged that first big title in Melbourne seemed less an omen than the logical outcome demanded by his great form.
You could be forgiven for thinking, "Yeah, Djokovic plays okay down here, so what? It's the 'Happy Slam,' not the crucial Slam, never mind 'the only Slam that matters. . .' "
Who knew that Djokovic would maintain that form through three-quarters of the year? Last year's Australian Open was the start of something special for Djokovic, and all the indications suggest that this year is a continuation of that theme. He's lost 34 games in the course of five matches, for an average of just under seven games per match, in best-of-five tennis. That's a remarkable success rate.
The big year Djokovic had in 2011 softened, somewhat, the criticism leveled at Murray following their meeting in the final. Djokovic won that one, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3, and Murray looked at an utter loss for what to do most of that time. In retrospect, it was more of a career moment for Djokovic than a career embarrassment for Murray, but that probably doesn't make Murray feel much more confident on the eve of the re-match.
Murray had every reason to feel confident going into last year's final. Djokovic had lost just one set on his way (to Ivan Dodig), while Murray had surrendered just two. It may strain the imagination now, but the book on Djokovic was that he was still having too much fun doing impersonations, and spending too much time rationalizing poor performances with an assortment of seemingly questionable physical complaints, to be much of a threat to Federer or Nadal.
I'm not saying Murray took Djokovic lightly, just that if he were so inclined, he could find ample evidence for taking that position.
Like everyone else on the planet, Murray knows that Djokovic is for real 12 months down the pike. And that helps Murray. Does anyone doubt that the outright superiority of Djokovic, and the way he leapfrogged over the two icons of this era, has sounded alarms in Murray's mind?
The most obvious reaction to Djokovic's ascendancy was Murray's decision to hire what the Brits might call a "proper" coach. Murray's alliance with former No. 1 and eight-time Grand Slam champ Ivan Lendl is the most tantalizing "unknown" in play for this match, and while the partnership is still new, it will be interesting to see what Lendl brings to the table—besides a courtside presence that seems to have shamed Murray into abandoning the silly petulant child routine that was once his response to adversity.
Having dealt with Lendl often in the past, I know that he isn't there just to provide moral support. Lendl is an incredibly clinical, logically-minded guy. If there's a soft underbelly in Djokovic's game, Lendl will find it. It's genuinely intriguing to wonder, will we see anything significantly different in the way Murray plays?
But there's another question here: Will Murray accept and act on Lendl's advice? You'd be surprised to know how often terrific players ignore their coaches' advice, just because they can. Just because they're stubborn, and find the idea that they must change anathema. Lendl won't stick around if he comes to an impasse, and that's good to know.
As the old saying goes, You can't teach an old dog new tricks. . . In tennis, though, the same applies to young dogs. In any event, it will be interesting to see what, if anything, Murray might do differently in the Melbourne rematch.